The question to be considered is, “What is the order of salvation?” “Which comes first, regeneration, or, faith?” A distinctive of Reformed Theology is the idea that, as a logical progression, the new birth precedes salvation.
In contrast, modern evangelicalism teaches that faith in Christ leads to salvation, which is why language is used calling upon individuals to do something, “make a decision,” or, to “come forward and pray a Sinner’s Prayer. In other words, if a sinner will but exercise faith in Christ they will be born again.
That sounds simple enough, and reasonable, until it is realized that modern evangelism fails to take into consideration the origin of the faith that is to be exercised resulting in salvation. The Bible says that a person in their Natural State, is dead in tresspasses and sin (Eph. 2:1). The Natural Man is in the flesh, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Jesus said those who are born of the flesh are flesh, and the flesh profits nothing. It is the Spirit who gives life (John 3:6; 6:63-7:13). Commenting on how the flesh profits nothing, Martin Luther noted that “nothing” does not mean “something.”
It is a glorious truth to understand that faith is the gift of God which can be exercised only because the Spirit has given life (Eph. 2:8, 9). Jesus said to Nicodemus, unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). The word “unless,” means something must happen first. There is a necessary condition that must be met. Without this necessary condition, a man cannot see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it.
Because of the popular message found in modern evangelism, there is a generation that believes an unregenerated person can see the kingdom, can choose to enter the kingdom, can believe in Christ, and have a relationship with Him, while they are still dead in their tresspasses and sin.
The Bible tells us in the Epistle to the Galatians that God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions, so that it might be said, it is by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:1-5). The Natural Man, the man who is in the Flesh, is in a state of impotence, or moral inability. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, no man can come to me (John 6:44). Do not talk about “will come” when Jesus said no man can come to Him unless the Father draw him.
No man has the power, or ability to come to Jesus without the Father drawing them to the Son. It is the Father who effectually draws a sinner to Christ, quickens the sinner, and gives him the gift of faith. That which is born in us is the result of the Spirit’s sovereign work of saving the soul by changing the heart so that it can believe in Jesus because it wants to believe in Him.
Until God the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of the soul of a sinner, there will never be faith in Christ. No sinner is seeking salvation. Rather, God in Christ seeks to save the lost sinner. Until God draws a person to Jesus, the sinner will never embrace Christ. The Natural Man will never decide for Christ in any redemptive way. The heart of the sinner will not naturally choose Jesus, because his heart is still in spiritual chains to the law of sin and death.
Much of the confusion about the order of salvation centers around the terminology rebirth, or regeneration. The tendency is to view the rebirth as the totality of the new Christian life rather than the very first step. But before that first step can be taken, there must be life. Only God can create life. Only God can regenerate a soul dead in transgressions.
The first step in salvation is the initiative of God, the work of the Holy Spirit to rebirth a soul so that the gospel can be heard, spiritual eyes can be made to see, the kingdom can be entered. The Holy Spirit must work in the new heart God has promised to give, to change our lives to bring us to Christ by faith. Because God uses means to bring a person into the kingdom, one person can plant a gospel seed, and another person can water it, but only God can give the increase (1 Cor. 3:6).
Is this Reformed distinctive important? Indeed, it is. Either man can believe out of his fleshly nature, or, man cannot believe unless God first work a sovereign work of grace in his heart and changes him. If a person perceives they cannot believe, they need not despair. They can call upon the name of the Lord and plead with Him for the gift of faith. Such a prayer will not be denied.
At dinner one night in my home, a man listened as I presented the gospel. After listening patiently he said to me, “Stan, I would give anything to believe as you do in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But,” he confessed, “I cannot believe any of that.”
As the gentleman was leaving the house after dinner, I took his hand and said, “My friend, I have a final word to say. Do not die. Do not die without calling on the name of the Lord and asking Him to change your heart of unbelief. You cannot change it. I cannot change your heart. Only God can rebirth you. We are all regenerated by the Holy Ghost. What you can do is ask God to make you willing in the day of salvation, and that day is, today.
The man went out into the night, still in darkness in his soul, where he remains to this day. A good man, from a human perspective, but a man without God. Why? Because only God can speak to the darkness and say, “let there be light.” Only God can put a new heart in a person.
For those of us who believe in Jesus because the Father has drawn us to Christ, and because the Holy Spirit has regenerated us, we bow and say,
“Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul,
thank you, Lord, for making me whole,
thank you, Lord, for giving to me,
that salvation, so rich and free.”