Bunyan, Belief, and the New Birth: Why Regeneration Precedes Faith

Bunyan, Belief, and the New Birth: Why Regeneration Precedes Faith

Regeneration is Necessary to Believe

In the last sermon he ever preached, August 19, 1688, John Bunyan said, “Believing is the consequence of the new birth.”[1] I would point out here, like Bunyan would, that this is casually rather than temporally. And the point is what is “in man” (cf. John 2:24-25) is so corrupted and evil that in and ourselves we will not savingly believe on Christ. Believing savingly on Jesus then, is the consequence, rather than the cause, of the new birth.

Throughout Church History, not everyone has agreed with this assessment. But take note of Jesus’s words in John 6:63 – “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh is no help at all” (emphasis mine). To further substantiate Bunyan’s claim of regeneration preceding faith, we turn to the Apostle John’s first epistle. To build our case, we will examine 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, and finally, 5:1. Take note of the repeated phrase in each verse in italics.

  • “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 John 2:29, emphasis mine)
  • “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9, emphasis mine)
  • “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7, emphasis mine)
  • “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” (1 John 5:1, emphasis mine)

Fruits of the New Birth

The Apostle John writes to reveal to his readers the fruits of being born again. First, he shows that practicing righteousness is a fruit of being born again (1 John 2:29). Next, he shows that not making a practice of sinning is a fruit of being born again (1 John 3:9). Thirdly, he shows that love of the brethren is a fruit of those who have been born again.

Now, we will stop there for a moment. Because what I have just written is not controversial to any conservative Bible believing Christian. No one is making grammatical arguments for why John might really mean that practicing righteousness precedes regeneration. In other words, a holy life, fighting sin, and loving God and the brethren are not things one does in order to be born again but because he has been born of God.

Regeneration is not the effect of these acts but the cause. As Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) wrote, “You must first have Union with him, before you can bring forth Fruit to God; you must act from Life, and not for Life.”[2] The acts John mentions are not for life, but flow from new life.

1 John 5:1

But when we get to 1 John 5:1, things get a little controversial. This is not because John has changed his style. He uses the same construction in 1 John 5 that he has used in chapters 2, 3, and 4. The problem for some is that now he has said everyone who believes – the same word for “belief” in John 3:16 – has been born of God.

No, John is not writing a systematic theology on the Ordo Salutis. But he is showing that one telltale sign of regeneration is that we savingly believe on Christ. It is important to John to show his readers that faith is another fruit of being born of God rather than the other way around.

Grammatically, “has been” in any of these 1 John verses could be simply translated “is” like it is in the NASB or the KJV in 1 John 5:1. And thus, one might make the argument that it does not matter to John in this verse which comes first – belief or regeneration. But I would argue that his whole case in this epistle is showing forth evidences of regeneration so that Christians can know that they are saved (cf. 1 John 5:13). Therefore, righteousness, a practice of not sinning, love, and faith all flow from regeneration rather than being the cause of regeneration.

Charles Spurgeon notes on 1 John 5:1,

[T]his faith, wherever it exists, is in every case, without exception, the gift of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. A man has never believed in Jesus with the faith here intended unless the Holy Spirit led him to do so. He has wrought all our works in us, and our faith too. Faith is too celestial a grace to spring up in human nature until it is renewed; faith is in every believer “the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).[3]

A Contrast

In contrast to Bunyan’s view, Dr. David Allen writes,

[W]ith respect to 1 John 5:1, contextually the simple initial act of believing is not under consideration by John. John is talking about the ongoing life of faith as a believer. Obviously, the new birth precedes the ongoing life of faith. But that is something altogether different from saying the new birth precedes the initial act of faith. John’s use of ‘born’ nowhere precludes the possibility of faith preceding regeneration. One may argue for regeneration preceding faith, but one cannot argue against faith preceding regeneration. The most that can be said from the Greek present participle and perfect tense verb combination is that the actions are contemporaneous. [4]

In response, while I appreciate Dr. David Allen’s love for Christ and his commitment to the Scriptures, he misses the wider argument John is making. 1 John 5:1 is not only about a present participle and perfect tense verb combination, but a wider argument that is central to the purpose of his writing, namely, this is what those born of God look like – they practice righteousness, they do not practice sinning, they love God and the brethren, and they believe on Christ.

Further, merely having the new birth precede the ongoing life of faith but not the initial act of faith is not a convincing argument. It is tantamount to saying that in order for someone to “keep believing” they must have been born of God, but in order to initially believe regeneration is unnecessary. This simply does not square with John’s epistle (or his gospel). And to say that “John’s use of ‘born’ nowhere precludes the possibility of faith preceding regeneration” is really an argument from silence.

A Test

John Piper says of 1 John 5:1 that “New birth precedes and is the enabling power behind our faith.” [5] I like this statement because it presents us with a test of sorts. If what Piper is saying about 1 John 5:1 is correct, then it should also work with 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7 since they are similarly constructed and part of the Apostle John’s overarching argument for his epistle.

Let’s take a moment and try this out. We will use Piper’s original statement and replace the word “faith” with what 1 John 2:29, 3:9, and 4:7 say.

  • New birth precedes and is the enabling power behind our practicing righteousness (2:29)
  • New birth precedes and is the enabling power behind our not practicing sinning (3:9)
  • New birth precedes and is the enabling power behind our love for fellow believers (4:7)

When we examine these verses like this we see that this is precisely what the Apostle is communicating! See, whatever you say of one of these statements in 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, and 5:1, you need to be able to say of them all. For example, would Dr. Allen say that 1 John 2:29 “does not preclude” our righteous deeds preceding our new birth? Of course not! I think this reveals the inconsistency of any position that tries to force faith to precede regeneration.

Therefore, if we take 1 John 5:1 in its wider context we see that John is arguing for faith being a fruit of regeneration instead of regeneration being a fruit of faith. And the point in examining these realities is to see the absolute necessity of the new birth. How could righteous acts be a fruit of being born of God but yet one make a righteous act (believing) in order to first be born of God? Man’s will does not move the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God moves (frees) the will of men (John 3:8). Because of our sinful unwillingness and hostility to Jesus and all things righteous, being born again is necessary for any person to savingly believe on Christ.

John Bunyan was spot on in his final sermon. And though not all have embraced this truth, it is still the reality. As gospel preachers we are fully dependent on the Spirit of God to use the gospel we proclaim to awaken dead hearts that sinners may look to Christ to be saved. Therefore, may we preach the gospel and pleading with all to come to Christ knowing the Holy Spirit is pleased to use our stammering to bring many sons and daughters into the kingdom.

[1] John Bunyan, Bunyan’s Last Sermon, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 756.

[2] Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification, Or, Justification without Works (London: Dorman Newman, 1692), 37.

[3] Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: 1 John, ed. Elliot Ritzema, Spurgeon Commentary Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 1 Jn 5:1.

[4] David L. Allen, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? ,” Journal of Baptist Theology and Missions 11 11, no. 2 (2014): 41.

[5] John Piper, Look at the Book Labs (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014–2015), 1 Jn 5:1–4.

Follow Allen S. Nelson IV:

Allen S. Nelson IV is the pastor of Perryville Second Baptist Church in Perryville, AR, where he resides with his wife Stephanie, and their 5 children. Allen is the author of From Death to Life: How Salvation Works and Before the Throne: Reflections on God’s Holiness . His other titles include blogger, rookie podcaster, and occasional conference speaker. Most importantly, he is a recipient of the undeserved grace of God.
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