Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation, Part 8

Article Five: The Regeneration of the Sinner

We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.

We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
Luke 15:24; John 3:3; 7:37-39; 10:10; 16:7-14; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 6:4-11; 10:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 6:15; Colossians 2:13; 1 Peter 3:18

This statement seems to affirm a synergistic understanding of regeneration. That is, it seems to affirm that regeneration is a cooperative effort between an unbeliever and God. The reason I say “seems to affirm” is due to imprecise language which, when engaging in theological dialogue is always problematic.

The phrase, “any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit,” can be taken two ways. It can mean, “any person who responds to the Gospel does so because he is a born again person.” Or it can mean, as I suspect the authors mean, “any person who responds to the Gospel is by that response born again.” The difference in the possible meanings can be illustrated by the following two sentences: “Anyone who lifts 500 pounds is strong” vs. “Anyone who passes the bar exam is an attorney.”

Given the whole statement in which this Article Five appears, as well as some of the defenses that have been offered by prominent signers and defenders of the statement, I am confident that those who originated and are promoting it do want to affirm that responding to the gospel with repentance and faith is what makes a person born again. As I have already noted, this is synergistic regeneration.

In the interest of clarity, let me note that when “synergism” vs. “monergism” is discussed in Calvinism/Arminianism debates what typically is in view is regeneration. The two words are theological shorthand to describe two opposing views of how regeneration comes to a person. Monergism sees regeneration to be a sovereign work of God in which He alone is active–that He gives new birth without any cooperative effort on the part of the individual. Synergism teaches that God regenerates a person only if and after that person repents and believes.

This issue highlights the importance of exercising care and precision when discussing fine points of biblical theology. If we move beyond the realm of regeneration into sanctification then nearly all monergists (with regard to regeneration) are synergists. That is, they believe that while there is no cooperation on the part of the individual in securing his new birth there is cooperative effort on his part in securing his growth in grace or sanctification.

With that said, the affirmers’ apparent synergistic view of regeneration is biblically untenable as well as being in violation of the plain reading of Article IV of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I must confess that I do not understand the rationale for the inclusion of most of the proof texts that are attached to this article and I am left wondering how their exegesis even touches on, much less supports, the authors’ and signers’ synergistic understanding of the new birth. These passages include obviously important and vitally connected issues: the necessity of the new birth, the necessity of the work of the Spirit in regeneration, the instrumentality of the Word of truth in regeneration, the necessity of repentance and faith, that there are operations of the Spirit that continue in the believer’s life beyond regeneration, that regeneration is likened to a new creation, that regeneration is the new covenant fulfillment of the type of circumcision; but none of the proof texts indicate that regeneration is suspended on and dependent on the prior exhibition of repentance and faith on the part of the sinner. It was also interesting that one of the classic passages on the method of the new birth is completely omitted.

That passage, however, deserves consideration. John 1:12-13 states, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Verse 12 teaches that those who receive Christ were authorized to become children of God–adopted into his family. Verse 13 explains how that happened by speaking of the act of birth–an act that will be elaborated in John 3:1-8. Those who are adopted into God’s family entered into that privileged status because they believed. They believed because they had been born (again) wholly and exclusively by the work of God. John specifically and plainly denies that their spiritual birth came through their genealogy (“not of blood”) or through the exercise of their own will (“the will of the flesh”) or through the imposition of another’s will (“nor of the will of man”). Rather, those who are children of God enter into that status because they have been monergistically “born…of God.” So in terms of the application of salvation, this passage teaches that it flows like this: new birth–faith–adoption. It is impossible to reconcile synergistic regeneration with these verses.

This Johannine view of the operation of the Spirit in the new birth finds reinforcement in this statement found in his first letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:10). John’s pattern of argument throughout this whole letter is to give evidences of the new birth and not to prescribe its cause (2:29; 3:9, 10; 4:7; 5:4, 5). The whole letter teaches that the new birth is sovereignly given and is the fountain from which all spiritual life, including saving faith, flows.

This point is even more starkly taught by Jesus when he instructs Nicodemus in John 3. The Lord tells him “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3) and “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot [remember, “can” is a word of ability] enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Entrance into the kingdom is reserved for those who trust Christ. Jesus plainly states that such entrance is impossible unless one is born of the Spirit. In fact, He goes even further by saying that not only is it impossible to enter the kingdom of God without being born again, one cannot even see the kingdom of God without this supernatural change.

When Nicodemus expresses incredulity over this teaching, Jesus includes in his response this astounding affirmation of the free will of the sovereign Spirit. “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” (v. 8). One of the concerns I have about this whole statement of affirmations and denials, as I have written previously, is the authors’ apparent determination to protect the absolute freedom of fallen man’s human will. Jesus shows a similar determination here, but it is directed toward the freewill of God’s Spirit in the work of regeneration. Like the wind, in granting new birth, the Spirit, “blows where [he] wishes.”

Even without going into the point of the analogy of birth these passages are sufficiently clear to show that the Bible teaches that God works monergistically to grant new birth to sinners. That does not mean that a person is passive in salvation because salvation consists of much more than regeneration. It does mean, however, that it is God’s will and God’s action alone that brings about new birth. This is precisely what is confessed in Article IV of the BFM.

That article reads in part,

Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.

This statement on regeneration affirms monergism. It is called a “work of God’s grace” and “a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit.” God alone is credited with being the Actor in the work of regeneration. Furthermore, the human action of repentance and faith are described as responsive. Ask any English professor to identify the antecedent of the pronoun “which” and he or she will tell you that it is the “It” that begins the sentence, which itself refers back to “Regeneration, or new birth.” In other words, regeneration “is a change of heart…to which the sinner responds in repentance…and faith” (emphasis added).

The Baptist Faith and Message teaches the priority of regeneration to faith. Rather than faith resulting in the new birth (which would be like Jesus saying, “you cannot believe unless you enter the kingdom of God”) the new birth results in faith. This is why the BFM goes on to confess that “repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace” (emphasis added).

Not only are the authors and signers of this “Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” out of step with Scripture in their view of regeneration, they are also out of step with the Baptist Faith and Message.

For a more complete statement on my understanding of regeneration go here.

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