Which comes first, faith in Christ or being born again? Do we trust in Christ and then become born again as a result of our faith or do we trust in Christ because we have been born again? Our answer to this question flows from our understanding of the state of fallen man. If man is morally unable to believe the gospel because he is hostile to God, then God must change his heart through regeneration before he can trust in Christ and faith would always be the certain and immediate result of regeneration. But if fallen man is not so depraved that he cannot trust in Christ alone to save him apart from regeneration, then a person could argue that sinners are not so enslaved to sin that their wills are not free to choose and love God. Regeneration would then be the Holy Spirit’s response to our decision to follow Jesus. While some would say that we are entering into the realm of speculative theology when we consider such questions, how we answer this question impacts how we do evangelism and invite sinners to Christ. It is the difference between the evangelism of Charles Finney versus that of George Whitefield – the First Great Awakening versus the Second.
1 John 5:1 is relevant to this debate because it says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Notice that “believes” is in the present tense while “has been born” is in the perfect tense. 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 4:7 both use the same grammatical construction: “you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” and “whoever loves has been born of God.” “Practices righteousness” and “loves” are both in the present tense while “has been born” is perfect as in 1 John 5:1. Now which comes first, being born again or practicing righteousness? A person cannot practice righteousness until he or she has been born again. A person cannot love God until the new birth. Likewise, a person cannot believe until they have been born again through the work of the Holy Spirit during the preaching of the gospel.
That is why the Word of God is the instrument of regeneration. James 1:18 affirms this truth when it says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.” 1 Peter 1:23 says the same thing when Peter writes, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” Our response to the gospel is the end result of God’s work of election: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 2:13-14). Being born again is not the result of man’s decision as John 1:13 says, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 3:8 says that we cannot control the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit any more than we can control the wind: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit brings new life to those whom he chooses. That’s why Paul says, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).
It is only through the Holy Spirit that a person can confess Jesus as Lord: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Believing in Christ must be granted by God as Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Faith is something that we obtain from God: “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). He must cause us to be born again because we were dead in our trespasses and sins (1 Peter 1:3; Eph 2:1-3). Because unregenerate man who does not have the Spirit is hostile to God and cannot please him (Rom 8:7-8), God must take the initiative in coming to us through the Spirit in the gospel. Are faith and repentance things that are pleasing to God? Then the man without the Spirit by definition cannot exercise them. He must first have the Spirit in order to love the one he was formerly hostile in mind to. He must be drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 65). And God’s calling is always effectual because all of those whom God calls he justifies (Rom 8:30). Regeneration is the resurrecting power of God whereby he gives new life to sinners who were in rebellion against him. And God wants to use us as his instruments because the preaching of the gospel is the means by which God through the Spirit grants new life.
I would agree with Charles Spurgeon who was on the side of John Calvin and the Westminster Assembly when he said, “Coming to Christ is the very first effect of regeneration. No sooner is the soul quickened than it at once discovers its lost estate, is horrified thereat, looks out for a refuge, and believing Christ to be a suitable one, flies to him and reposes in him. Where there is not this coming to Christ, it is certain that there is as yet no quickening; where there is no quickening, the soul is dead in trespasses and sins, and being dead it cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And in the sermon “Faith and Regeneration” he said, “To believe in Jesus is a better indicator of regeneration than anything else, and in no case did it ever mislead. Faith in the living God and his Son Jesus Christ is always the result of the new birth, and can never exist except in the regenerate. Whoever has faith is a saved man.”