Toward Southern Baptist Unity, Part 6: Unifying Propositions on Regeneration

See all the posts in the series, Toward Southern Baptist Unity»

There are two profound changes that happen to a man as he is converted: first, the man is changed from a man who hates God to a man who is ready to repent and turn to God (this is what the Calvinists focus on—how profound it is that a man who shakes his fist at God becomes a man on his knees at the altar!); and second, God responds to the man who turns from his sin and justifies him, indwelling him with the Holy Spirit and bringing life back to his spirit (this is what Libertarians tend to focus on—the “new creation,” being “born again” and restored to communion with God).

Libertarians fail to recognize the first change for what it is—a profound change—and emphasize only the second change. In this second change, God does respond to the man’s decision to come to Him in faith. However, the second change cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace intervened in such a way as to bring about that change. Men must freely respond to the gospel, but that response does not come out of nowhere. In every man who responds, God has done a work of preparation in his life that resulted in the first profound change.

Calvinists mostly fail to recognize that the two changes are distinct, and reserve only justification for God’s response to the sinner’s faith. But justification is grounded on the reality of spiritual union with the indwelling Christ. Justification provides the initial legal judgment of our salvation, but the union with Christ provides the substance and reality of our salvation—the ground and basis for our justification. While it is plausible that God would have reason to justify prior to union, there is no plausible reason to withhold justification once the believer is united with Christ—and uniting us to Christ is the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

It comes down to the question of how far God must go to effect that first change (from rebellion to repentance). Calvinists think that God, uninvited, must change the man from within, because nothing short of an entirely new nature will suffice. Those who disagree affirm that God works on him from without, communicating with him (drawing him) without indwelling him, along with orchestrating the events of his life, and that a new nature is not needed in order to bring the sinner to his knees. Repentant belief is not the righteous act of a righteous nature, pleading its own merit; rather, repentant belief is the desperate act of the convicted sinner, with no merit to hope for but that of Christ.

Rejecting God is not intrinsic to man’s nature. Men are not conceived rejecting God. Infants don’t shake their fists at God. Man’s nature is intrinsically self-centered, selfish, self-absorbed, self-loving; and this inevitably leads to rejecting God and sinning. However, rejecting God and sinning are secondary results, and not necessary to the nature itself. God does not need to change the sinner’s nature—regenerate him—in order to get him to embrace Christ. Rather, God enlightens the man to the fact that it is ultimately in the man’s greatest self-interest to forsake himself and embrace God. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”(Mark 8:35). This is the reason that faith always has a promise from God. Without the promise, there would be nothing to appeal to the sinner’s self-interest and thus attract him to embrace God in faith.” At conversion, the sinner comes according to God’s will, but also according to his own greatest self-interest, so that his interests and God’s are aligned and in agreement. Therefore, it is possible for God to bring a sinner to genuine faith without changing the sinner’s nature prior to that faith.

The second change is a change in nature, but it cannot happen without the first change; and the first change only happens if God has in His grace “pursued” the man, through the convictions, revelations, and persuasions of the Holy Spirit (as well as the orchestration of necessary circumstances and events in life). The first change is man’s response to God, and makes the second change—which is God’s response to man—to be ultimately creditable only to God.

Continue to Part 7: Unifying Propositions on Atonement»

Ken Hamrick, 2013

[Added the penultimate paragraph on 6/7/2013].

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One comment

  1. dr. james willingham

    My, there is so much said and so little accomplished. The idea of the seed or the work of conception is not really understood, anagennao. Like the thing that was conceived in Mary. And then there is the bring forth at birth, Jas.1:18, apekuasen. While the terms are used otherwise of the whole birth process and/or its result, the point is that there is a beginning of a new life, a spiritual life, which begins to manifest its presence under the preaching of the word. No one but God, and those whom He might inform of the fact, has access to the beginning of the process, but we are all concerned as to the result, the coming forth, the conversion, the delivery of the child of God from sin, self, and Satan. in an evident manifestation. Interestingly enough, the process can began and even manifest itself up to a point much greater than we suspect. For example, my ordaining pastor wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject, Messianic Expectations Among the Nations. And in my reading and research, I have come across indications of the actual beginnings the change in people before the Gospel comes on the scene. For example, in A.H. Strong’s Systematic Theology there a few cases mentioned of people who indicated that they had been converted before the Gospel was preached to them. Their remark is insightful, “That is the one in whom I believe. I just didn’t know His name.”(my paraphrase of some examples in Strong in India and Africa). Another instance, from another source, tells of an American Indian who was converted before the White man came preaching the Gospel. This fellow became the pastor of a Baptist church in Indiana which he served for 40 years. Our aim in preaching is conversion, but the materials on the beginning of the process need to be stressed in order for man to grasp the reality of it, namely, that it is the work of God and he must be fully conscious of that fact in order to know his dependency upon God throughout the occurrence.

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