Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
“Regeneration Precedes Faith” (RPF)1 captures what the Bible teaches about God’s supernatural and effectual grace upon the hearts of sinners so that they may believe in Christ to the saving of their souls. RPF simply means that faith is a gift of God.2 This statement seriously takes the fact that “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh is no help at all (John 6:33).” Therefore, “Believing is the consequence of the new birth.”3 It also presupposes man’s inability to believe in Christ since he is radically depraved, unwilling, and unable to come to Christ (Romans 8:7-8).4 R.C. Sproul advances its importance,
When speaking of the order of salvation (ordo salutis), Reformed theology always and everywhere insists that regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith because it is a necessary condition for faith. Indeed, it is the sine qua non of faith. It is important to understand, however, that the order of salvation refers to a logical order, not necessarily a temporal order. 5
Our confession, the 1689 LBCF beautifully captures this truth under the heading “On Effectual Calling” (cp. 10) which interestingly comes before the chapter on Saving Faith (cp. 14)
Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, He is pleased in His appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving to them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace. (emphasis mine)
John Hendryx solidifies this truth which comes from the lips of our invincible Savior,
“It is the Spirit that quickens [gives life, regenerates]… No one will believe in Me unless God grants it… and ALL to whom God grants it will believe”. Jesus is making sure that no one thinks that anything apart from Jesus is what saves them. That even the very new heart we need to understand spiritual truth, love Jesus and believe is itself a gift of God. This text leaves no room for any other interpretation. This is profoundly important because it creates the inescapable conclusion that the quickening grace of God is invincible.6
Arminians or those who reject the RPF use John 20:31 (and other passages, John 5:39, 3:16, etc.) to counter the truth that new birth must be given to sinners before they can believe. But most of the time, this argument flows from the passages that talk about adoption, not regeneration (Gal 3:26, John 1:12). But we must maintain the distinction. Stephen Charnock remarks, “Adoption gives us the privilege of sons, regeneration the nature of sons.”7 For example, we have this from Leighton Flowers,
The order clearly laid out is as follows:
- “these are written…” (scriptures)
- “…that you may believe…”
- “…by believing you may have life…”
Life clearly is a fruit of faith and repentance, not the other way around.
While we cannot deny the order laid out in the passage, to begin with, it is important to understand the intention of the passage. In this passage, John clearly stated his purpose in writing this fourth gospel.
Aside from the textual problem,8 most scholars recognize the difficulty of John’s purpose here. We know that this was written for the Gentiles (Contra Carson. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 46). But was it written for the believers or unbelievers?
This study notes from NET Study Bible is insightful,
A major question concerning this verse, the purpose statement of the Gospel of John, is whether the author is writing primarily for an audience of unbelievers, with purely evangelistic emphasis, or whether he envisions an audience of believers, whom he wants to strengthen in their faith. Several points are important in this discussion: (1) in the immediate context (20:30), the other signs spoken of by the author were performed in the presence of disciples; (2) in the case of the first of the signs, at Cana, the author makes a point of the effect the miracle had on the disciples (2:11); (3) if the primary thrust of the Gospel is toward unbelievers, it is difficult to see why so much material in chaps. 13-17 (the last meal and Farewell Discourse, concluding with Jesus’ prayer for the disciples), which deals almost exclusively with the disciples, is included; (4) the disciples themselves were repeatedly said to have believed in Jesus throughout the Gospel, beginning with 2:11, yet they still needed to believe after the resurrection (if Thomas’ experience in 20:27-28 is any indication); and (5) the Gospel appears to be written with the assumption that the readers are familiar with the basic story (or perhaps with one or more of the synoptic gospel accounts, although this is less clear). Thus no account of the birth of Jesus is given at all, and although he is identified as being from Nazareth, the words of the Pharisees and chief priests to Nicodemus (7:52) are almost certainly to be taken as ironic, assuming the reader knows where Jesus was really from. Likewise, when Mary is identified in 11:2 as the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, it is apparently assumed that the readers are familiar with the story, since the incident involved is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel until 12:3. These observations must be set over against the clear statement of purpose in the present verse, 20:31, which seems to have significant evangelistic emphasis. In addition to this there is the repeated emphasis on witness throughout the Fourth Gospel (cf. the witness of John the Baptist in 1:7, 8, 15, 32, and 34, along with 5:33; the Samaritan woman in 4:39; Jesus’ own witness, along with that of the Father who sent him, in 8:14, 18, and 18:37; the disciples themselves in 15:27; and finally the testimony of the author himself in 19:35 and 21:24).
In light of all this evidence it seems best to say that the author wrote with a dual purpose: (1) to witness to unbelievers concerning Jesus, in order that they come to believe in him and have eternal life; and (2) to strengthen the faith of believers, by deepening and expanding their understanding of who Jesus is. (Bible Arc, emphasis mine)
So John has a dual purpose in writing this: for the believers and unbelievers. We must be careful to argue that the author exclusively writes for the believers to support our claim that the “believing ones” have life in Christ.
This gospel is written with the purpose that they may believe (in Greek, it is “hina” clause plus the subjunctive mood which indicates the purpose). This is similar to John 3:16 where the “hina” clause is used to indicate the clear intention or purpose of the sending of the Son.
The next clause “and that by believing” is another “hina” clause, adding or expounding the result of believing, i.e. that they may have eternal life. The “believing” in this clause is not “continuous”, it is a participle of manner. It states the means to obtain “life.” For the unbelievers, faith is the means for them to be united to Christ. For the believers, John strengthened the fact that faith united them with Christ who is Himself Eternal Life.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate RPF. It simply states the phenomenological aspect of salvation (man’s view) which is consistent with the language of the Scriptures (John 5:39-40, 6:47, 3:16). It’s all that we can perceive. We can only know that a man is born again once he puts his faith in Christ evidenced by his fruit (John 3:3-8). There’s no use to assert that the word believe is the same word used in Acts 16:31, as if Calvism denies the truth that we call sinners to believe in Christ that they may be saved.
This verse would only negate the reformed axiom (RPF) if they can show that “life” here equals regeneration or born-again experience which is the initial implantation of the principle of life in a dead soul by the work of the Spirit (John 3, Ezek 36:25-27, Ezel 37, etc). I think it is “salvation in general” that is promised to those who believe (1 John 2:25), which begins at the moment that we “know” Christ (John 17:5), and the end of knowing Christ (Romans 6:23).9
John Gill has a helpful and straightforward note on this since the focus of the passage is the Object of faith from whom we receive life as those who believe are united with Him,
“believers have their spiritual and eternal life through Christ; their life of grace, of justification on him, of sanctification from him, and communion with him; the support and maintenance of their spiritual life, and all the comforts of it: and also their life of glory, or eternal life, they have through, or in his name; it lies in his person, it comes to them through him as the procuring cause of it.” (Commentary on John 20:31)
Regeneration’s priority over faith is not temporal but logical. We can make a strong case on this point from key passages in the first letter of John (1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4).10 From God’s standpoint revealed in Scriptures this must happen. From our standpoint, we can only know that we are born again once we believe in Christ. Here’s an assertion from John Murray,
The priority of regeneration might create the impression that a person could be regenerated and yet not converted. These passages in 1 John should correct any such misapprehension. We need to remember again that the leading emphasis in these passages is the invariable concomitance of regeneration and the other graces mentioned… When we put these texts together they expressly state that every regenerate person has been delivered from the power of sin, overcomes the world by the faith of Christ, and exercises that self-control by which he is no longer the slave of sin and of the evil one. That means, when reduced to its simplest terms, that the regenerate person is converted and exercises faith and repentance… Hence we shall have to conclude that in the other passages (2:29; 4:7; 5:1) the fruits mentioned—doing righteousness, the love and knowledge of God, believing that Jesus is the Christ—are just as necessarily the accompaniments of regeneration as are the fruits mentioned in 3:9; 5:4, 18. This simply means that all of the graces mentioned in these passages are the consequences of regeneration and not only consequences which sooner or later follow upon regeneration, but fruits which are inseparable from regeneration.11
The call to believe that leads to having eternal life is not a problem for Calvinists. It is a biblical language that promises eternal life to those who believe which constitutes the “very heart of this Gospel’s theology” since they are united to the very fountain of Life, Jesus Christ Himself (John 14:6).
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
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- Beeke, J., Jones, M. A Puritan Theology. 463-4. “The Puritan theology of regeneration completed the Reformed conception of what it means to be a Christian. Along the way, the Puritans sought to distinguish various aspects of regeneration, including the initial quickening of the sinner, previously dead in trespasses and sins; his conversion to God, including faith and repentance; and subsequently, the daily renewing of his life in the process of sanctification. The Reformers used the term “regeneration” in all these senses, not just in the narrowest sense of being identified only as the moment of new birth when a sinner is transferred from self-made darkness into God’s marvelous light.” ↩︎
- Shrock, David. Regeneration Precedes Faith: Six Passages in Paul That Prove Faith is a Gift, https://davidschrock.com/2021/11/24/regeneration-precedes-faith-six-passages-in-paul-that-prove-faith-is-a-gift/ ↩︎
- John Bunyan, as quoted by Allen Nelson in Bunyan, Belief, and the New Birth: Why Regeneration Precedes Faith, https://founders.org/articles/bunyan-belief-and-the-new-birth-why-regeneration-precedes-faith/. ↩︎
- Check our blog on this doctrine here: The Total Depravity of Man 2. ↩︎
- Sproul, R.C. What is Reformed Theology, 226 ↩︎
- Hendryx, John. Jesus Teaches that Regeneration Precedes Faith. https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/newbirth2.html ↩︎
- Charnock, Stephen. A Discourse of the Nature of Regeneration ↩︎
- Michaels, J. R. NICNT: The Gospel of John. V. E. 30-31. The present tense (ἵνα πιστεύητε) is supported by P66 (probably), by the first hand of א, B, and Θ. The aorist is supported by a corrector of א, A, C, D, L, W, Ψ, families 1 and 13, and the majority of later manuscripts. ↩︎
- It may be shown that this verse refers to “new birth” as some would even from the Calvinist camp. For example, John Piper in his book Finally Alive footnote 32 comments, ‘“Believing you may have life” (John 20:31), he means: In the new birth, the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives us new spiritual life by connecting us with Jesus Christ through faith. For Jesus is life. Therefore, when answering the question What happens in the new birth? never separate these two sayings of Jesus in John 3: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3), and, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (v. 36). What happens in the new birth is the creation of life in union with Christ. And part of how God does that is by the creation of faith, which is how we experience our union with Christ.‘
But John Piper does not deny RPF, he writes, “The new life makes the faith possible, and since spiritual life always awakens faith and expresses itself in faith, there is no life without faith in Jesus. Therefore, we should never separate the new birth from faith in Jesus. From God’s side, we are united to Christ in the new birth. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. From our side, we experience this union by faith in Jesus.” (32) So John Piper is arguing for the inseparability of regeneration and faith. RPF maintains the logical order. ↩︎
- The reader is invited to read Matthew Barrett’s DOES REGENERATION PRECEDE FAITH IN 1 JOHN? https://midamerica.edu/uploads/files/pdf/journal/01-barrettjournal2012.pdf ↩︎
- Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. 108 ↩︎
This article was published by Jeff Chavez for Herald of Grace Covenant Bible Church of Cavite. Click on the link for the original source: https://hgcbcc.com/2024/01/03/regeneration-precedes-faith/