Regeneration: Mediate or Immediate?
by Fred G. Zaspel
Regeneration is the life-giving work of God in which he brings the sinner out of spiritual death, thus radically transforming his inner being. Scripture variously represents regeneration as a new birth (e.g., Jn. 1:12; Jn.3:1ff), resurrection (e.g., Rom. 6:3-11; Eph. 2:5), creation (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10), and restoration of sight (e.g., Jn. 3:3; 9:39; 2 Cor. 4:4-6). One point rising from all these metaphors is that regeneration is a divine work, something God alone does and in which man is passive. Regeneration entails a new disposition on the part of the individual, transforming him in “new life” toward God. Regeneration therefore issues in repentance and faith (conversion; 1 Jn. 5:1) and in on-going progress in holiness (2 Cor. 3:18).
With this much virtually all Calvinists agree. Some debate exists, however, concerning the means of regeneration. Reformed interpreters have traditionally held that God sovereignly employs his Word, the gospel, in bringing sinners to life. This position is sometimes referred to as mediate or gospel regeneration. Some among the “higher” Calvinists espouse a view of immediate regeneration and argue rather that God uses no such means at all in regeneration — he sovereignly brings the sinner to life apart from any means whatever. God uses his Word / the gospel in conversion, bringing individuals to an awareness of their new life. But he does not use his Word in bringing them to life; this he does without the use of any means (immediately).
In the course of defending immediate regeneration advocates will commonly but mistakenly characterize gospel regeneration as advocating the Arminian notion that regeneration comes by means of the sinner’s response to the gospel and that regeneration is dependent upon so much human activity. This mis-characterization of gospel regeneration often drives the opposition to it, and arguments are too often advanced on this level. But this misunderstanding / misrepresentation only clouds the discussion. The traditional Reformed position of gospel regeneration entertains no such notions at all. It simply holds that God sovereignly employs the gospel, making it effective in the experience of his elect as he calls them in grace to faith. Both sides in this debate agree that regeneration is a work of God alone, that regeneration is not given “in response” to faith or anything human, that regeneration precedes faith, and that the gospel / God’s Word has no power of itself either to regenerate or convert. All these things both sides affirm together. The question does not turn on questions of divine sovereignty but of the sovereign use of the gospel.
Gospel regeneration does not hold that the new birth is dependent upon human response. This is sheer Arminianism. Rather, it holds simply that God alone gives life and that he does so by means of the Word of God. This was the position of John Calvin and of John Owen and consistently of Reformed interpreters generally. Since Reformation times Reformed theologians have maintained a healthy, Biblical emphasis on “the Spirit and the Word.” It is not the Word alone that accomplishes anything. But neither does the Spirit work in a vacuum — he works by means of the Word of God. Again, God alone regenerates, and he does so by means of the gospel.
That God gives life by means of the gospel is in no way a capitulation to Arminianism. Indeed, if that were the case then the charge of “Arminian” could be used against the immediate regeneration position also, as most of its adherents affirm that God uses the gospel as the instrument of conversion. In neither case is the instrumental means dependent upon human response. Rather, in both cases the instrumental means (the Word) brings about the human response. That is to say, God uses his own powerful Word both in regeneration and in conversion. In the one case it results in life; in the other it results in faith. In neither case is the “power unto salvation” left to human agency. It is in both cases God at work through his own Word.
1 Pet. 1:23 says that we are “born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, through (dia) the living and enduring word of God.” Unquestionably a first reading of this verse would lead us to think in terms of gospel regeneration. That is what it manifestly seems to say — that the new birth comes via God’s Word. Calvin comments here accordingly:
For, as in Hebrews 4:12, because God sees all things, and nothing is hid from him, the apostle argues that the word of God penetrates into the inmost marrow, so as to discern thoughts and feelings; so, when Peter in this place calls him the living God, who abides for ever, he refers to the word, in which the perpetuity of God shines forth as in a living mirror.
Calvin’s comments are self-evidently appropriate to this passage. By contrast, advocates of immediate regeneration strain the language of the text beyond its limits and assert, surprisingly, that since in this phrase Peter says dia (and not ek) he indicates that the Word of God is the means of conversion but not regeneration. But this surprising assertion is so patently not what Peter says it scarcely deserves rebuttal. The verse plainly says that regeneration comes via the Word. The Word as the means of conversion is not the subject addressed in this verse. Advocates of immediate regeneration need for it to say that, so they assert that it is so. But the text itself does not say it at all. It says very simply that regeneration comes via the living Word of God. Simply put, the gospel is the instrumental means of regeneration — that is the plain statement of the text.
Since James 1:18 affirms the very same thing, even though with different terminology, we needn’t spend much time on it. James says “Of his [God’s] own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.” Here is the traditional Reformed position stated exactly. God and God alone (“of his own will”) brings us to life by means of the gospel. Again, this is the easiest first reading of the text, and it would be difficult to imagine what else it could mean. Opponents argue that the terminology involved (apokueo) indicates birth rather than conception and that birth, in turn, indicates conversion not regeneration. But such a strained interpretation is unconvincing to say the least. It is virtually unthinkable that James’ readers would have made such fine distinctions and understood these words in such a complicated way. It just is not, in Greek or in English, the face reading of the text. It is obvious how advocates of immediate regeneration could read the verse in this way — they must, in order to maintain their position. But such a reading of the text is clearly presuppositionally and not exegetically driven. The text itself simply cannot be made to bear all that weight.
Again, 1 Pet. 1:23 and James 1:18 affirm explicitly the traditional Reformed position — God alone gives new life, and he does it by means of his life-giving Word.
These two verses are probably the clearest, most succinct statements of the doctrine. But there is more. The apostle Paul affirms the same in 1 Cor. 1:17-31. His whole argument here can be reduced very simply to this: because of the darkness of the unregenerate heart, men find the gospel “foolish”; however, this gospel, when coupled with God’s efficacious call to those whom he has chosen, proves powerful in bringing life and faith. Nor can this be relegated to a discussion of conversion merely, although conversion surely has a rightful place in the interpretation of this passage. Paul’s statement is specific — the gospel coupled with God’s call proves powerful. Unless there is some way to separate God’s call from regeneration at some Biblically unprecedented distance, this passage demands the traditional Reformed interpretation — that God brings sinners to life by means of the gospel. Once again, Paul’s thinking assumes the utility of the gospel in God’s sovereign regenerating work.
Closely related to this is 2 Thes.2:13-14, where Paul says plainly that we who are saved have been “called to (eis) this through (dia) the gospel.” Again, it would require an unwarranted separation of calling and regeneration to relegate this text to a discussion of conversion merely and not regeneration. The plain assumption of the verse is that of the utility of the gospel in calling and, therefore, in regeneration. It is in this same vein that the New Testament writers speak of the “power” of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 1 Thes. 1:5; etc.). God’s Word is powerful not just in conversion but in regeneration which brings about conversion.
And with all this it is difficult to understand Paul’s claims in 2 Cor. 3:1-6 in any other light. Here he characterizes his ministry as a ministry that in God’s grace results in life and deep renewing of heart?
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
It would seem impossible to understand this in any way other than that Paul saw his gospel / new covenant ministry as a ministry that in God’s powerful grace brought about regeneration. It is so plainly stated — the Spirit writing on the heart, giving life — that further comment is scarcely required. As Paul understood it, his gospel was a gospel that in God’s hands was life-giving.
This theology is illustrated for us in the experience of Lydia in Acts 16:14. The narrative plainly says that Paul preached and then that God opened Lydia’s heart to receive that preached Word. It was not Paul who did the regenerating or the converting — he affirms that in 1 Cor. 1 when he says the gospel is effective only when coupled with God’s efficacious call. But the Word preceded the giving of life and in God’s sovereign hands was a means to it. The narrative of Ezek. 37 reads the same. The prophet is commanded to preach to the bones and then to the winds, and in turn God gave life. This is the traditional Reformed view exactly.
More subtle but much to the same point are Paul’s earlier words to these same believers in Corinth.
Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel (1 Cor. 4:15).
Similarly his words to the Galatians:
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal.4:19).
These words seem to reflect, particularly in the light of all we have seen elsewhere in the New Testament, that Paul understood his ministry as, in God’s sovereign grace, resulting in life. It would be difficult to understand how the apostle could speak so unguardedly if in fact he did not believe that gospel ministry is a means to spiritual life.
Brief mention should be made of 2 Tim. 1:10.
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
Advocates of immediate regeneration take this verse to mean that the gospel brings the regenerate to become aware of their new life. But this is to “personalize” the verse beyond its intent. Paul’s statement is that Christ by his death and resurrection has accomplished these great things that, in turn, are preached in the Christian gospel. Once again, the language cannot be made to bear any more weight than this.
All of this squares perfectly well with all those many passages which affirm God’s sovereignty in regeneration (John 3, Eph. 2, etc.), that regeneration precedes faith (1 Jn. 5:1; etc.), that God alone gives ears to hear, that man is willing only in the day of God’s power, etc. God and God alone gives life. And he does not give life in response to our faith or anything else about the sinner. It is his work alone. But it is no less his work because he does so by means of his Word — this is a false disjunction that only hinders clarity in the discussion. God’s Word alone accomplishes nothing. But his Word coupled with his Spirit is powerfully life-giving.
Regeneration and Conversion
Finally, the doctrine of immediate regeneration forces a wedge of considerable distance between regeneration and conversion that simply cannot be sustained exegetically. Strictly speaking, regeneration and conversion are not actually simultaneous — regeneration must precede faith and give rise to it (1 Jn. 5:1). Extrapolating from this technical distinction the doctrine of immediate regeneration holds that regeneration occurs in a vacuum, apart from the gospel, and that a person may therefore be born again for any indefinite length of time before believing. However reasonable this theological notion may seem, it is impossible to sustain exegetically. And for obvious reason — the Bible knows of no regenerate unbelievers. There simply is none. The Bible knows only of regeneration issuing in faith, and in the Biblical record there is no evident time lapse between regeneration and conversion. Indeed, many hold that regeneration and conversion are simultaneous for these reasons exactly — the Bible knows of no regenerate unbelievers, regeneration necessarily and inevitably shows itself in faith, and in the Biblical record this faith always follows immediately upon regeneration. Regeneration is unto faith. And all this brings us back very close to our original discussion of regeneration by means of the gospel. Accordingly, the standard Reformed Confessions, both Presbyterian and Baptist, scarcely reflect any distinction between regeneration and conversion at all — not because they would deny such but because Biblically understood the one inevitably implies and results in the other. Regeneration and conversion simply cannot be separated so drastically as demanded by immediate regeneration. It is to drive a wedge between the two that Scripture simply will not allow.
That God sovereignly calls and gives life by means of the gospel is the plain statement of several New Testament passages and the necessary implication of several more. The traditional Reformed interpretation as advocated by so many such as John Calvin, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, and the Confessions rests on solid exegetical ground. And it lends no support whatever to any Arminian notion of salvation via human initiative any more than does the teaching of gospel conversion. God alone gives life, and God alone converts. And he does so by means of his powerful, life-giving and faith-giving Word.