Men of GodRegeneration by Abraham Kuyper
Old and New Terminology.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh.”–John iii. 6.
Before we examine the work of the Holy Spirit in this important matter, we must first define the use of words.
The word “regeneration” isused in a limited sense, and in a more extended sense.
It is used in the limited sense when it denotes exclusively God’s act of quickening, which is the first divine act whereby God ranslates us from death into life, from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son. In this sense regeneration is the starting-point. God comes to one born in iniquity and dead in trespasses and sins, and plants the principle of a new spiritual life in his soul. Hence he is born again.
But this is not the interpretation of the Confession of Faith, for article 24 reads: “We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.” Here the word “regeneration,” used in its wider sense, denotes the entire change by grace effected in our persons, ending in our dying to sin in death and our being born for heaven. While formerly this was the usual sense of the word, we are accustomed now to the limited sense, which we therefore adopt in this discussion.
Respecting the difference between the two–formerly the work of grace was generally represented as the soul consciously observed it; while now the work itself is described apart from the consciousness.
Of course, a child knows nothing of the genesis of his own existence, nor of the first period of his life, from his own observation. If he were to tell his history from his own recollections, he would begin with the time that he sat in his high chair, and proceed until as a man he went out into the world. But, being informed by others of his antecedents, he goes back of his recollections and speaks of his parents, family, time, and place of birth, how he grew up, etc. Hence there is quite a difference between the two accounts.
The same difference we observe in the subject before us. Formerly it was customary, after the manner of Romish scholastics, to describe one’s experience from one’s own recollections. Being personally ignorant of the implanting of the new life, and remembering only the great spiritual disturbance, which led one to faith and repentance, it was natural to date the beginning of the work of grace not from regeneration, but from the conviction of sin and faith, thence proceeding to sanctification, and so on.
But this subjective representation, more or less incomplete, can not satisfy us now. It was to be expected that the supporters of “free will” would abuse it, by inferring that the origin and first activities of the work of salvation spring from man himself. A sinner, hearing the Word, is deeply impressed; persuaded by its threats and promises, he repents, arises, and accepts the Savior. Hence there is nothing more than a mere moral persuasion, obscuring the glorious origin of the new life. To resist this repulsive deforming of the truth, Maccovius, already in the days of the Synod of Dort, abandoned this more or less critical method to make regeneration the starting-point. He followed this order: “Knowledge of sin, redemption in Christ, regeneration, and only then faith.” And this was consistent with the development of the Reformed doctrine. For as soon as the subjective method was abandoned, it became necessary in answer to the question, “What has God wrought in the soul?” to return to the first implanting of life. And then it became evident that God did not begin by leading the sinner to repentance, for repentance must be preceded by conviction of sin; nor by bringing him under the hearing of the word, for this requires an opened ear. Hence the first conscious and comparatively cooperative act of man is always preceded by the original act of God, planting in him the first principle of a new life, under which act man is wholly passive and unconscious.
This led to the distinction of the first and second grace. The former denoted God’s work in the sinner, creating a new life without his knowledge; while the latter denoted the work wrought in regenerate man with his full knowledge and consent.
The first grace was naturally called regeneration. And yet there was no perfect unanimity in this respect. Some Scottish theologians put it in this way: “God began the work of grace with the implanting of the faith-faculty (fides potentialis), followed by the new grace of the faith-exercise (fides actualis), and of the faith power (fides habitualis). Yet it is only an apparent difference. Whether I call the first activity of grace, the implanting of the “faith-faculty,” or the “new principle of life,” in both instances it means that the work of grace does not begin with faith or with repentance or contrition, but that these are preceded by God’s act of giving power to the powerless, hearing to the deaf, and life to the dead.
For a correct idea of the entire work of grace in its different phases let us notice the following successive stages or milestones:
1. The implanting of the new life principle, commonly called regeneration inthe limited sense, or the implanting of the faith-faculty. This divine act is wrought in man at different ages; when, no one can tell. We know from the instance of John the Baptist that it can be wrought even in the mother’s womb. And the salvation of deceased infants constrains us, with Voetius and all profound theologians, to believe that this original act may occur very early in life.
2. The keeping of the implanted principle of life, while the sinner still continues in sin, so far as his consciousness is concerned. Persons who received the life-principle early in life are no more dead, but live. Dying before actual conversion, they are not lost, but saved. In early life they often manifest holy inclinations; sometimes truly marvelous. However, they have no conscious faith, nor knowledge of the treasure possessed. The new life is present, but dormant; kept not by the recipient, but by the Giver–like seed-grain in the ground in winter; like the spark glowing under the ashes, but not kindling the wood; like a subterranean stream coming at last to the surface.
3. The call by the Word and the Spirit, internal and external. Even this is a divine act, commonly performed through the service of the Church. It addresses itself not to the deaf but to the hearing, not to the dead but to the living, altho still slumbering. It proceeds from the Word and the Spirit, because not only the faith-faculty, but faith itself–i.e., the power and exercise of the faculty–are gifts of grace. The faith-faculty can not exercise faith of itself. It avails us no more than the faculty of breathing when air and the power to breathe are withheld. Hence the preaching of the Word and the inward working of the Holy Spirit are divine, correspondent operations. Under the preaching of the Word the Spirit energizes the faith-faculty, and thus the call becomes effectual, for the sleeper arises.
4. This call of God produces conviction of sin and justification, two acts of the same exercise of faith. In this, God’s work may be represented again either subjectively or objectively. Subjectively, it seems to the saint that conviction of sin and heart-brokenness came first, and that then he obtained the sense of being justified by faith. Objectively, this is not so. The realization of his lost condition was already a bold act of faith. And by every subsequent act of faith he becomes more deeply convinced of his misery and receives more abundantly from the fulness which is in Christ, his Surety.
Concerning the question, whether conviction of sin must not precede faith, there need be no difference. Both representations amount to the same thing. When a man can say for the first time in his life “I believe,” he is at the same moment completely lost and completely saved, being justified in his Lord.
5. This exercise of faith results in conversion; at this stage in the way of grace the child of God becomes clearly conscious of the implanted life. When a man says and feels “I believe,” and does not recall it, but God confirms it, faith is at once followed by conversion. The implanting of the new life precedes the first act of faith, but conversion follows it. Conversion does not become a fact so long as the sinner only sees his lost condition, but when he acts upon this principle; for then the old man begins to die and the new man begins to rise, and these are the two parts of all real conversion.
In principle man is converted but once, viz., the moment of yielding himself to Immanuel. After that he converts himself daily, i.e., as often as he discovers conflict between his will and that of the Holy Spirit. And even this is not man’s work, but the work of God in him. “Turn Thou me, O Lord, and I shall be turned.” There is this difference, however, that in regeneration and faith’s first exercise he was passive, while in conversion grace enabled him to be active. One is converted and one converts himself; the one is incomplete without the other.
6. Hence conversion merges itself in sanctification. This is also a divine act, and not human; not a growing toward Christ, but an absorbing of His life through the roots of faith. In children of twelve or thirteen deceased soon after conversion, sanctification does not appear. Yet they partake of it just as much as adults. Sanctification has a twofold meaning: first, sanctification which as Christ’s finished work is given and imputed to all the elect; and second, sanctification which from Christ is gradually wrought in the converted and manifested according to times and circumstances. These are not two sanctifications, but one; just as we speak sometimes of the rain that accumulates in the clouds above and then comes down in drops on the thirsty fields below.
7. Sanctification is finished and closed in the complete redemption at the time of death. In the severing of body and soul divine grace completes the dying to sin. Hence in death a work of grace is performed which imparts to the work of regeneration its fullest unfolding. If until then, considering ourselves out of Christ, we are still lost in ourselves and lying in the midst of death, the article of death ends all this. Then faith is turned into sight, sin’s excitement is disarmed, and we are forever beyond its reach.
Lastly, our glorification in the last day, when the inward bliss will be manifest in outward glory, and by an act of omnipotent grace the soul will be reunited with its glorified body, and be placed in such heavenly glory as becomes the state of perfect felicity.
This shows how the operations of grace are riveted together as the links of a chain. The work of grace must begin with quickening the dead. Once implanted, the still slumbering life must be awakened by the call. Thus awakened, man finds himself in a new life, i.e., he knows himself justified. Being justified, he lets the new life result in conversion. Conversion flows into sanctification. Sanctification receives its keystone through the severing of sin in death. And in the last day, glorification completes the work of divine grace in our entire person.
Hence it follows that that which succeeds is contained in that which precedes. A regenerate deceased infant died to sin in death just as surely as the man with hoary head and fourscore years. There can be no first without including the second and last. Hence the entire work of grace might be represented as one birth for heaven, one continued regeneration to be completed in the last day.
Wherefore there may be persons ignorant of these stages, which are as indispensable as milestones to the surveyor; but they may never be made to oppress the souls of the simple. He who breathes deeply unconscious of his lungs is often the healthiest.
Touching the question whether the Scripture gives reference to this arrangement over the old, we refer to the word of Jesus: “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he can not see the kingdom of God” (John iii. 5); from which we infer that Jesus dates every operation of grace from regeneration. First life, and then the activity of life.
“No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him.” –John vi. 44.
From the preceding it is evident that preparatory grace is different in different persons; and that distinction must be made between the many regenerated in the first days of life, and the few born again at a more advanced age.
Of course, we refer only to the elect. In the non-elect saving grace does not operate; hence preparatory grace is altogether out of the question. The former are born, with few exceptions, in the Church. They do not enter the covenant of grace later on in life, but they belong to it from the first moment of their existence. They spring from the seed of the Church, and in turn contain in themselves the seed of the future Church. And for this reason, the first germ of the new life is imparted to the seed of the Church (which is, alas! always mixed with much chaff) oftenest either before or soon after birth.
The Reformed Church was so firmly settled in this doctrine that she dared establish it as the prevailing rule, believing that the seed of the Church (not the chaff of course} received the germ of life even before Baptism; wherefore it is actually sanctified in Christ already; and receives in Baptism the seal not upon something that is yet to come, but upon that which is already present. Hence the liturgical question to the parents: “Do you acknowledge that, altho your children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to condemnation itself, yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of His Church ought to be baptized?”
In subsequent periods, less stedfast in the faith, men have shunned this doctrine, not knowing what to make of the words “are sanctified.” This they interpreted to mean that as children of members of the covenant they were counted as belonging to the covenant, and as such were entitled to baptism. But the earnest and sound common sense of our people has always felt that this mere “counting in” did not do justice to the full and rich meaning of the liturgy.
And if you should inquire into the meaning of these words of the office of Baptism, “are sanctified,” not of the weaker epigones, but of the energetic generation of heroes who have victoriously fought the Lord’s battles against Arminius and his followers, then you would discover that those godly and learned theologians, such as Gysbrecht Voetius for instance, never for a moment hesitated to break with these half-way explanations, but spoke out plainly, saying: “They are entitled to Baptism not because they are counted as members of the covenant but because as a rule they actually already possess that first grace; and for this reason, and this reason alone, it reads: `That our children are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of His body ought to be baptized.'”
By this confession the Reformed Church proved to be in accord with God’s Word and not less with the actual facts. With few exceptions, persons who afterward prove to belong to the regenerate do not begin life with riotous outbreaks of sin. It is rather the rule that children of Christian parents manifest from early childhood a desire and taste for holy things, warm zeal for the name of God, and inward emotions that can not be attributed to an evil nature.
Moreover, this glorious confession gave the right direction to the education of children in our Reformed families, largely retained to the present time. Our people did not see in their children offshoots of the wild vine, to be grafted perhaps later on, with whom little could be done until converted after the manner of Methodism;  but they lived in the quiet expectation and holy confidence that the child to be trained was already grafted, and therefore worthy to be nursed with tenderest care. We admit that, latterly, since the Reformed character of our churches has been impaired by the National Church as a church for the masses, this gold has been sadly dimmed; but its original, vital thought was beautiful and animating. It made God’s work of regeneration precede man’s work; to Baptism it gave its rich development; and it made the work of education, not dependent on chance, cooperate with God.
Hence we recognize among the rising generation in the Church four classes:
1. All elect persons regenerated before Baptism, in whom the implanted life remains hidden until they are converted at a later age.
2. Elect persons, not only regenerated in infancy, but in whom the implanted life was early manifested and ripened imperceptibly into conversion.
3. Elect persons born again, and converted in later life.
4. The non-elect, or the chaff.
Examining each of these four, with special reference to preparatory grace, we arrive at the following conclusions:
Regarding the elect of the first class, from the very nature of the case preparatory grace has scarcely room here, in its limited sense. In its direct form, it is unthinkable with reference to an unborn or new-born child. In such it is only indirect–i.e., frequently, it pleases God to give such child parents whose persons and nature’s practise a form of sin less outspoken in its war upon grace than other forms of sin. Not as, tho such parents had anything from which the child could be grafted, for that which is born of the flesh is flesh; nothing clean from the unclean; it is always the wild vine waiting for the grafting of the Lord. Nay, the preparatory grace in this case appears from the fact that the child receives from its parents a form of life adapted to its heavenly calling.
The same applies to the elect of the second class. Altho we concede that the divine call works upon such during their tender years, yet, while it prepares for conversion, it does not prepare for regeneration, which it follows. The call is ineffectual unless the faculty of hearing be first implanted. Only he that has an ear can hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches and to his own soul. Hence, in this case, preparatory grace is scarcely perceptible. Surely there are many agencies that imperceptibly prepare for his conversion; but this is different from a preparing for regeneration, and we speak now only of the latter.
Properly speaking, preparatory grace in its limited sense is applied only to the third class of elect persons. It comprehends their whole life with all its turns and changes, relations and connections, heights and depths, events and adversities. Not as tho all these could produce the slightest germ of life or possibility of quickening. No; the germ of life can never spring from preparatory grace, any more than the preparation of ten cradles, of a dozen of clothes baskets, and of closets full of expensive infant-garments can ever juggle a single infant into any of those cradles. The vital spark is produced only by an act of the mighty God, independent of all preparation. But, from its birth, God guards that wild-vine and controls the growth of its wild shoots, so that in the hour of His pleasure, when He shall graft upon it the true vine, it may be all that it ought to be.
And this ends the discussion, for regarding the fourth class, by and by they will be separated from the wheat and blown away by the fan which is in His hand; hence preparatory grace is out of the question.
And from this it is evident that the proper work of the Holy Spirit regarding preparatory grace is scarcely perceptible.
Every feature of this work, so far presented, points directly not to the operation of the Holy Spirit, nor to that of the Son, but almost exclusively to that of the Father. For the circumstances of the child’s birth–i.e., the hereditary character of his family and more especially of his parents, and the future course of his life until the moment of his conversion–belong to the realm of the divine Providence. The appointed place of our habitation, our generation and family, the formation of our immediate environment, the influences previously determined to affect us–all belong to the leadings of God’s providence, ascribed by Scripture to the work of the Father. The Lord Jesus said: “No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him.” And altho this drawing of the Father has a higher aim and must be spiritually understood, yet it indicates generally that the determining of those things, which afterward regulates their direction and course, is attributed particularly to the First Person.
We notice a work of the Holy Spirit in this matter only as far as He animates all personal life, since He is the Spirit of Life; and as He cooperates with the Father in that special providence which refers to the elect. For, altho in our mind we can analyze the work of grace, yet we may never forget that the eternal reality does not fully correspond to this part of our analysis.
Hence, in the elect, the work of providence and that of grace often flow together, being one and the same. Our Church has tried to express this, in her confession of a general providence which includes
 For the sense in which the author takes Methodism, see section 5
in the Preface.
Regeneration the Work of God.
“The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath even made both of them.”–Prov. xx. 12.
“The hearing ear, and the seeing eye, the Lord hath even made both of them.” This testimony of the Holy Spirit contains the whole mystery of regeneration.
An unregenerate person is deaf and blind; not only as a stock or block, but worse. For neither stock nor block is corrupt or ruined, but an unregenerate person is wholly dead and a prey to the most fearful dissolution.
This rigid, uncompromising, and absolute confession must be our starting-point in this discussion, else we shall fail to understand the claims of regeneration. This is the reason why every heresy that has conceded in one way or other that man has a share, most generally a lion’s share, in the work of redemption, has always begun by calling in question the nature of sin. “Undoubtedly,” they said, “sin is very bad–a terrible and abominable evil; but there is surely some remnant of good in man. That noble, virtuous, and amiable being, man, can not be dead in trespasses and sin. That may be true of some scoundrel or knave behind the bars, or of robbers and unscrupulous murderers; but really, it can not be applied to our honorable ladies and gentlemen, to our lovely girls, roguish boys, and attractive children. These are not prone to hate God and their neighbors, but disposed, with all their heart, to love all men, and render unto God the reverence due unto Him.”
Therefore away with all ambiguity in this matter! This method of smoothing over unpalatable truths, now so much in vogue among the affable people, we can not indorse. Our confession is, and ever shall be, that by nature man is dead in trespasses and sin, lying under the curse, ripe for the just judgment of God, and still ripening for an eternal condemnation. Surely his being, as man, is unimpaired; wherefore we protest against the presentation that the sinner is in this respect as a stock or block. No; as man he is unimpaired, his being is intact; but his nature is corrupt, and in that corrupt nature he is dead.
We compare him to the body of a person who has died of an ordinary disease. Such a body retains all the members of the human organism intact. There is the eye with its muscles, and the ear with its organs of hearing; in the post-mortem examination heart, spleen, liver, and kidneys appear to be perfectly normal. A dead body may sometimes appear so natural that one is tempted to say: “He is not dead, but sleeping.” And yet, however perfect and natural, its nature is corrupt with the corruption of death. And the same is true of the sinner. His being remains intact and whole, containing all that which constitutes a man; but his nature is corrupt, yea, so corrupt that he is dead; not only apparently, but actually dead; dead in all the variations which can be played upon the term “dead.”
Hence without regeneration the sinner is utterly unprofitable. What is the use of an ear except it hear, or of an eye except it see? Therefore the Holy Ghost testifies: “The hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made even both of them.” (Prov. xx. 12) And since in the world of spiritual things deaf ears and blind eyes do not avail anything, the Church of Christ confesses that every operation of saving grace must be preceded by a quickening of the sinner, by an opening of blind eyes, an unstopping of deaf ears–in short, by the implanting of the faculty of faith.
And as the man that sat in darkness can see as soon as his eyes are opened, so we, without moving a hair’s breadth, are translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. “Translated” does not denote here an actual going, nor does “to be translated” denote an actual change of place, but simply life entering into the dead, so that he that was blind can now see.
This wonderful act of regeneration may be examined in two classes of persons: in the infant and in the adult.
It is the safest way to examine it in the infant: not because this work of grace is different in an infant from what it is in an adult, for it is the same in all persons thus favored; but to the conscious observation of an adult the workings of regeneration are so mingled with those of conversion that it is difficult to distinguish the two.
But this difficulty does not exist in the case of an unconscious child, as, e.g., in John the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth. Such infant has no consciousness to create confusion. The matter appears in a pure and unmixed form. And thus we are enabled to distinguish between regeneration and conversion in an adult. It is evident that in the case of an infant which, like John, is still unborn, there can be nothing but mere passivity–i.e., the child underwent something, but himself did nothing; something was done to him, and in him, but not by him; and every idea of cooperation is absolutely excluded.
Hence, in regeneration, man is neither worker nor coworker; he is merely wrought upon; and the only Worker in this matter is God. And, for this very reason, because God is the sole Worker in regeneration, it must be thoroughly understood that His work does not begin only with regeneration.
No; while the sinner is still dead in trespasses and sins, before the work of God has begun in him, he is already chosen and ordained, justified and sanctified, adopted as God’s child and glorified. This is what filled St. Paul with such ecstasy of joy when he said: “For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate; and whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Rom. viii. 29, 30). And this is not the recital of what took place in the regenerate, but the glad summing up of the things which God accomplished for us before we existed. Hence our election, foreordination, justification, and glorification precede the new birth. It is true that, in the hour of love when regeneration was to be effected in us, the things accomplished outside of our consciousness were to be revealed to the consciousness of faith; but so far as God was concerned all things were ready and prepared. The dead sinner whom God regenerates is to the divine consciousness a beloved, elect, justified, and adopted child already. God quickens only His dear children.
Of course, God justifies the ungodly and not the righteous; He calls sinners to repentance and not just persons; but it should be remembered that this is spoken from the point of view of our own consciousness of sin. The still unregenerate does not feel himself God’s child, nor that he is justified; does not believe his own election, yea, often gainsays it; yet he can not alter the things divinely wrought in his behalf, viz., that before the supreme bar of justice God declared him just and free, long before he was so declared before the bar of his own conscience. Long before he believed, he was justified before God’s tribunal, by and by to be justified by faith before his own consciousness.
But, however wonderful and unfathomable the mystery of election may be–and none of us shall ever be able to answer the question why one was chosen to be a vessel of honor, and another was left as a vessel of wrath–in the matter of regeneration we do not face that mystery at all. That God regenerates one and not another is according to a fixed and unalterable rule. He comes with regeneration to all the elect; and the non-elect He passes by. Hence this act of God is irresistible. No man has the power to say, “I will not be born again,” or to prevent God’s work or to put obstacles in His way, or to make it so difficult that it can not be performed.
God effects this gracious work in His own way, i.e., He so royally perseveres that all creatures together could not rob Him of one of His elect. If all men and devils should conspire to pluck a brutal man, belonging to the elect, from His saving power, all their efforts would be mere vanity. As we brush away a spider’s web, so would God laugh at all their commotion. The powerful steam borer pierces the iron plate not more noiselessly and with less effort than silently and majestically God penetrates the heart of whomsoever He will, and changes the nature of His chosen. Isaiah’s word concerning the starry heavens–“Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their hosts by number; He calleth them all by name, by the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power; not one faileth ” (Isa. xl. 26) may be applied to the firmament in which God’s elect shine as stars: “Because of the greatness of His might, and that He is strong in power, not one faileth.” All that are ordained to eternal life are quickened at the divinely appointed hour.
And this implies that the work of regeneration is not a moral work; that is, it is not accomplished by means of advice or exhortation. Even taken in its wider sense, including conversion, as, e.g., the canons of Dort use it now and then, regeneration is not a moral working in the soul.
It is not simply a case of misunderstanding, the sinner’s will being still uncorrupt, so that it requires only instruction and advice to induce it to choose rightly. No; such advice and admonition are wholly out of the question regarding the unborn son of Zacharias; and the thousands of infants of believing parents, of whom at Dort it was correctly confessed that they may be supposed to have died in the Lord, i.e., being born again; and regarding those regenerated before Baptism but converted later in life.
For this reason it is so necessary to examine regeneration (in its limited sense) in an infant, and not in an adult, in whom it necessarily includes conversion.
The following reasoning can not be disputed:
1. All men, infants included, are born dead in trespasses and sins.
2. Of these infants many die before they come to self-consciousness.
3. Of these gathered flowers the Church confesses that many are saved.
4. Being dead in sin, they can not be saved without being born again.
5. Hence regeneration does actually take place in persons that are not
These statements being indisputable, it is evident, therefore, that the nature and character of regeneration can be determined most correctly by examining it in these still unconscious persons.
Such an unborn infant is totally ignorant of human language; it has no ideas, has never heard the Gospel preached, can not receive instruction, warning, or exhortation. Hence moral influence is out of the question; and this convinces us that regeneration is not a moral, but a metaphysical act of God, just as much as the creation of the soul of an unborn child, which is effected independently of the mother. God regenerates a man wholly without his foreknowledge.
What it is that constitutes the act of regeneration can not be told. Jesus Himself tells us so, for He says: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou Nearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John iii. 8) And, therefore, it is befitting to investigate this mystery with the utmost discretion. Even in the natural kingdom the mystery of life and its origin is almost entirely beyond our knowledge. The most learned physician is entirely ignorant concerning the manner in which a human life comes into existence. Once existing, he can explain its deveopment, but of the inception that preceeds all else he knows absolutely nothing. In this respect he is just as ignorant as the most innocent peasant boy. The mystery can not be penetrated, simply because it lies beyond our observation; it is perceptible only that life exists.
And this applies in stronger sense to the mystery of our second birth. Post-mortem examination can detect the embryo and its locality, but spiritually even this is impossible. Subsequent manifestations are instructive to a certain extent, but even then much is uncertain and unsettled. By what infallible standard can it be determined how much of the old nature enters into the expressions of the new life? Is there no hypocrisy? Are there no conditions unexplained? Are there no obstacles to spiritual development? Hence experience in this respect can not avail; tho pure and simple, it can reveal only the development of that which is, and not the origin of the life unborn.
The only source of truth on this subject is the Word of God; and in that Word the mystery remains not only unrevealed, but veiled. And for good reasons. If we were to effect regeneration, if we could add to or take from it, if we could advance or hinder it, then Scripture would surely have sufficiently instructed us concerning it. But since God has reserved this work altogether to Himself, man need not solve this mystery any more than that of his first creation, or that of the creation of his soul.
The Work of Regeneration.
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.”–2 Cor. v. 17.
In our former article we contended that regeneration is a real act of God in which man is absolutely passive and unable, according to the ancient confession of the Church. Let us now reverently examine this matter more closely; not to penetrate into things too high for us, but to cut off error and to clear the consciousness.
Regeneration is not sacramentally effected by holy Baptism, relieving the sinner’s inability, offering him another opportunity to choose for or against God, as the Ethicals maintain.
Nor is it a mere rectifying of the understanding; nor a simple change of disposition and inclination, making the unwilling willing to conform to the holy will of God.
Neither is it a change of ego; nor, as many maintain, a leaving the ego undisturbed, the personality unchanged, simply putting the evil ego in the light and reflection of the righteousness of Christ.
The last two errors must be refuted and rejected as positively as the first two.
In regeneration a man does not receive another ego; i.e., our being as man is not changed nor modified, but before and after regeneration it is the same ego, the same person, the same human being. Altho sin has terribly corrupted man, his being remained intact. Nothing is lacking. All its constituent parts, that distinguish it from all other beings, are present in the sinner.
Not his being, but his nature became totally corrupt.
Nature and being are not the same. Applied to a steam-engine, being is the engine itself, with its cylinders, pipes, wheels, and screws; but its nature is the action manifest as soon as steam enters the cylinder. Applied to man, being is that which makes him man, and nature that which manifests the character of his being and working.
If sin had ruined man’s being, he would be no more man, and regeneration would be impossible. But since his being, his ego, his person remained intact and the deep corruption affected only his nature, regeneration, i.e., restoration of his nature, is possible; and this restoration is effected by the new birth. Let this be firmly maintained. In regeneration we do not receive a new being, ego, or person, but our nature is reborn.
The best and most satisfactory illustration of the manner of regeneration is furnished by the curious art of grafting. The successful grafting of a budding shoot of the cultivated grape upon the wild vine results in a good tree growing upon the wild trunk. This applies to all fruit-trees and flowering plants. The cultivated can be grafted upon the wild. Left to itself, the wild will never yield anything good. The wild pear and the wild rose remain stunted and chary of fruit and blossom. But let the gardener graft a finely flavored pear upon the wild pear, or a beautiful double tea rose upon the wild rose, and the former will yield luscious fruit and the latter magnificent flowers.
This miracle of grafting has always been a wonder to thinking men. And it is a wonder. The trunk to be grafted is absolutely wild; with its wild roots it sucks the saps and forces them into its wild cells. But that little graft has the wonderful power of converting the sap and vital forces into something good, causing that wild trunk to bear noble fruit and rich flowers. It is true the wild trunk vigorously resists the reformation of its nature by its wild shoots below the graft, and if successful its wild nature will forcibly assert itself and prevent the sap from passing through the bud. But by keeping down those wild shoots the sap can be forced to the bud with excellent results. Forcing down the wild trunk, the graft will gradually reach almost to the roots, and we nearly forget that the tree was ever wild.
This clearly represents regeneration so far as this divine mystery can be represented objectively. For in regeneration something is planted in man which by nature he lacks. The fall did not merely remove him from the sphere of divine righteousness, into which regeneration brings him back, but regeneration effects a radical modification in man as man, creating a difference between him and the unregenerate so great that finally it leads to direct opposites.
To say that between the regenerate and the unregenerate there is no difference is equivalent to a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit. Generally, however, no difference is noticed at first, no more than in the grafted tree. Twins lie in the same cradle; one regenerated, the other not, but we can not see the slightest difference between the two. The former may even have a worse temper than the latter. They are exactly alike. Both spring from the same wild trunk. Dissecting knife nor microscope could detect the least difference; for that which God has wrought in the favored child is wholly spiritual and invisible, discernible to God alone.
This fact must be confessed definitely and emphatically, in opposition to those who say that the seed of regeneration is material. This error occupies the same ground as the Manichean heresy in the matter of sin. The latter makes sin a microbe; and this makes the seed of regeneration a sort of perceptible germ of life and holiness. And this falsifies the truth against which, among others, Dr. Boehl has earnestly protested.
The seed of regeneration is intangible, invisible, purely spiritual. It does not create two men in one being, but before and after regeneration there is but one being, one ego, one personality. Not an old and a new man, but one man–viz., the old man before regeneration, and the new man after it–who is created after God in perfect righteousness and holiness. For that which is born of God can not sin. His seed remaineth in him. “Old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.” (2 Cor. v. 17)
Yet the nature of the ego or personality is truly changed, and in such a way that, putting on the new nature in principle, he still continues to work through the old nature. The grafted tree is not two trees, but one. Before the grafting it was a wild rose, after it a cultivated one. Still the new nature must draw its saps through the old nature; apart from the graft, the trunk remains wild.
Hence before as well as after regeneration we lie in the midst of death, as soon as we consider ourselves outside of the divine seed. Wherefore, trying to avoid one false position, we must be careful not to run into another; trying to escape, the Siamese twinship of the old and the new man, and maintaining the unity of the ego before and after regeneration, we should not begin to teach that regeneration leaves our person unchanged, that it does not affect the sinner himself, but merely translates him into the sphere of an extraneous righteousness. No: the Scripture speaks of a new creature, another birth, a being changed and renewed. And this can not be reconciled with the notion that the sinner should remain unchanged.
Regarding the question, what it is in the bud that has the potency to regenerate the wild trunk, the best-informed botanist can not discover the fiber or liquid that might have this power. He only knows that every bud has its own nature, and possesses the potency to produce another branch or tree of the same nature by its own formative power.
And this applies to the work of regeneration. In the center of our being, ego, personality rules our nature, disposition, form of being, and existence, imparting its impress, form, character, and spiritual quality to what we are and work and speak. That all-controlling center is by nature sinful and wicked. Under its fairest forms it is but unrighteous. Hence, willingly or unwillingly, we press upon our being, working, and speaking the stamp of unrighteousness. According to age and development this nature of the ego chisels out of the marble of our being an evil and sinful man, corresponding to the image contained in our nature from which it proceeds. In regeneration God performs in this controlling center of our being a wonderful act, converting this nature, this formative force into something entirely different. Consequently our being, working, and speaking are henceforth controlled by another commandment, law of life, and government; and this new formative force chisels another man in us, new and holy, a child of God, created in righteousness.
But this change is not completed at once. The tree grafted in March may remain inactive during that entire month, because, there is as yet no working in its nature. But this is sure: as soon as there is any action it will be according to the new, ingrafted nature.
And so it is here. The new, ingrafted life may lie dormant for a season, like a grain of wheat in the earth; but when it begins to work it will be according to the nature of the new life. Hence regeneration implants the life-germ of the new man, whom it contains in all his completeness, and from which it will proceed as surely as the wheat contained in the seed proceeds from it.
In order to assist us in our representation of this mystery, the greatest theologian of the Reformed churches has presented the divine
plan in regeneration in the following stages:
(1) In His own mind God conceives the new man; whom (2) He modifies according to a particular person, thus creating the new man; (3) He brings the germ of this new man into the center of our being; (4) in which center He effects the union between our ego and this germinating life; (5) in that vital germ God supports the formative power, which at His appointed time He will cause to come forth, by which our ego will manifest itself as a new man.
Regeneration and Faith.
“Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.”–1 Peter i. 23.
There is a possible objection to what has been said above concerning regeneration. It is evident that God’s Word, and therefore our symbols of faith, offers a modified representation of these things which, superficially considered, seems to condemn our representation. This representation, which does not consider children, but adults, may thus be stated: Among a circle of unconverted persons God causes the Word to be preached by His ambassadors of the cross. By this preaching the call reaches them. If there are elect persons among them, for whom it is now the time of love, God accompanies the outward call with the inward. Consequently they turn from their ways of sin to the way of life. And so they are begotten of God.
Thus St. Peter presents the matter, saying: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible; by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” (1 Pet. i. 23) And also St. Paul when he declares, “That faith is by the hearing, and the hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. x. 17). It fully harmonizes with what St. Paul writes concerning holy Baptism, which he calls the washing of “regeneration,” for in those days Jew and Gentile were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, immediately after their conversion, by the preaching of the apostles.
For this reason our fathers confessed in their Confession (article 24): “We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man.” And likewise teaches the Heidelberg Catechism (see question 65): “Such faith proceedeth from the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.” And also the canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Heads of doctrine, section 17: “As the almighty operation of God, whereby He prolongs and supports this our natural life, does not exclude, but requires the use of means by which God of His infinite mercy and goodness hath chosen to exert His influence; so also the before-mentioned supernatural operation of God, by which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the Gospel; which the most wise God hath ordained to be the seed of regeneration and food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and the abasement of all pride, and in the mean time, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the Gospel in the exercise of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline; so even to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the Church, by separating what He of His good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is His work advanced.”
And now, in order to eradicate every suspicion that we contend against this representation, we declare openly and definitely that we give it our most hearty assent.
We only beg it be considered that in this presentation both Scripture and the symbols of faith always point to the mysterious background, to a wonderful work of God hiding back of it, to an inscrutable mystery without which all this comes to naught.
The canons of Dort describe this mysterious, inscrutable, and wonderful background most elaborately and most beautifully in article 12, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine: “And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture and denominated a new creation; a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the Gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not; to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose hearts God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore, also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.” And also in article 11: “But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the Gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, He pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, tho heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.” The Heidelberg Catechism points to this, in question 8: “Except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.” And also the Confession, article 22: “We believe that to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits.”
This mysterious background, which our fathers at Dort called “His pervading the inmost recesses of man by the efficacy of the, regenerating Spirit,” is evidently the same as what we call “the divine operation which penetrates the center of our being to implant the germ of the new life.”
And what is this mysterious working? According to the universal testimony based upon Scripture, it is an operation of the Holy Spirit in man’s innermost being.
Hence the question, whether this regenerating act precedes, accompanies, or follows the hearing of the Word. And this question should be well understood, for it involves the solution of this seeming disagreement.
We answer: The Holy Spirit may perform this work in the sinner’s heart before, during, or after the preaching of the Word. The inward call may be associated with the outward call, or it may follow it. But that which precedes the inward call, viz., the opening of the deaf ear, so that it may be heard, is not dependent upon the preaching of the Word; and therefore may precede the preaching.
Correct discrimination in this respect is of greatest importance.
If I designate the whole conscious work of grace from conversion until death, “regeneration,” without any regard to its mysterious background, then I may and must say with the Confession (article 24): “That this faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word, and the operation of the Holy Spirit, doth regenerate him and make him a new man.”
But if I distinguish in this work of grace, according to the claims of the sacraments, between the origin of the new life, for which God gave us the sacrament of holy Baptism, and its support, for which God gave the sacrament of the holy Supper, then regeneration ceases immediately after man is born again, and that which follows is called “sanctification.”
And discriminating again between that which the Holy Spirit wrought in us consciously and unconsciously, then regeneration designates that which was wrought in us unconsciously, while conversion is the term we apply to the awakening of this implanted life in our consciousness. Hence God’s work of grace runs through these three successive stages:
1st. Regeneration in its first stage, when the Lord plants the new life in the dead heart.
2d. Regeneration in its second stage, when the new-born man comes to conversion.
3d. Regeneration in its third stage, when conversion merges into sanctification.
In each of these three God performs a wonderful and mysterious work in man’s inward being. From God proceed quickening, conversion, and sanctification, and in each God is the Worker: only with this difference, that in the quickening He works alone, finding and leaving man inactive; that in conversion He finds us inactive, but makes us active; that in sanctification He works in us in such a manner that we work ourselves through Him.
Describing it still more closely, we say that in the first stage of regeneration, that of quickening, God works without means; in the second stage, that of conversion, He employs means, viz., the preaching of the Word; and in the third stage, that of sanctification, He uses means in addition to ourselves, whom He uses as means.
Condensing the foregoing, there is one great act of God which re-creates the corrupt sinner into a new man, viz., the comprehensive
act of regeneration, which contains three parts–quickening, conversion, and sanctification.
For the ministry of the Word it is preferable to consider only the last two, conversion and sanctification, since this is the appointed means to effect them. The first, regeneration, is preferably a subject of private meditation, since in it man is passive and God only active; and also because in it the majesty of the divine operation is most apparent.
Hence there is no conflict or opposition. Referring, according to the Confession, article 17, only to conversion and sanctification, the unstopping of the deaf ear as preceding the hearing of the Word is not denied. And penetrating into the work which antedates conversion, “In which God works in us without our aid” (article 12 of the canons of Dort), it is not denied, but confessed, that conversion and sanctification follow the unstopping of the deaf ear, and that, in the proper sense, regeneration is completed only at the death of the sinner.
Do not suppose that we make these two to conflict. In writing a biography of Napoleon it would be sufficient simply to mention his birth, but one might also mention, more in particular, the things that took place before his birth. Just so in this respect: I may refer either to the two parts of regeneration, conversion and sanctification, or I may include also that which precedes conversion, and speak also of the quickening. This implies no antagonism, but a mere difference of exactness. It is more exhaustive, with reference to regeneration, to speak of three stages–quickening, conversion, and sanctification; altho it is customary and more practical to speak only of the last two.
Our purpose, however, calls for greater completeness. The aim of this work is not to preach the Word, but to uncover the foundations of the truth, so as to stop the building of crooked walls upon the foundation-stone, after the manner of Ethicals, Rationalists, and Supernaturalists.
Exhaustiveness in treatment requires to ask not only, “How and what does the quickened sinner hear?” but also, “Who has given him hearing ears? ”
And this is all the more to be insisted upon because our children must not be ignored in this respect. At Dort, in 1618, our children were taken into account, and we may not deny ourselves this pleasant obligation.
And herein lies a real danger. For to speak of the little ones without considering the first stage of regeneration–i.e., the quickening–causes confusion and perplexity from which there is no escape.
Salvation depends upon faith, and faith upon the hearing of the Word; hence our deceased infants must be lost, for they can not hear the Word. To escape this fearful thought it is often said that the children are saved by virtue of the parents’ faith–a misunderstanding which greatly confused our entire conception of Baptism, and made our baptismal form very perplexing. But as soon as we distinguish quickening, as a stage of regeneration, from conversion and sanctification, the light enters. For since quickening is an unaided act of God in us, independent of the Word, and frequently separated from the second stage, conversion, by an interval of many days, there is nothing to prevent God from performing His work even in the babe, and the apparent conflict dissolves into beautiful harmony. Moreover, as soon as I regard my still unconverted children as not yet regenerate, their training must run in the direction of a questionable Methodism.  What is the use of the call so long as I suppose and know: “This ear can not yet hear”?
Touching the question concerning. “faith,” we are fully prepared to apply the same distinction to this matter. You have only to discriminate between the organ or the faculty of faith, the Power to exercise faith, and the working of faith. The first of these three, viz., the faculty of faith, is implanted in the first stage of regeneration–i.e., in quickening; the power of faith is imparted in the second stage of regeneration–i.e., in conversion; and the working of faith is wrought in the third stage–i.e., in sanctification. Hence if faith is wrought only by the hearing of the Word, the preaching of the Word does not create the faculty of faith.
Look only at what our fathers confessed at Dort: “He who works in man both to will and to do produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, article 14).
Or to express it still more strongly: when the Word is preached, I know it; and when I hear it and believe it, I know whence this working of faith comes. But the implanting of the faith-faculty is an entirely different thing; for of this the Lord Jesus says: “Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh; and whither it goeth” (John iii. 8); and as the wind, so is also the regeneration of man.