Monday, August 20, 2007

Does Jesus Teach That Regeneration Precedes Faith In John 3:3, 6?

Probably the favorite Calvinist proof text for their doctrine of irresistible regeneration is John 3:3, 6. Here Jesus directly addresses the doctrine of the new birth. Calvinists and most Biblical theologians correlate the new birth with regeneration. Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can "see" or "enter" the Kingdom of God unless they are first "born again". Calvinists see in Jesus words the teaching that regeneration precedes faith. They point to two aspects of what Christ said to Nicodemus which they believe demonstrate that Jesus was teaching that the new birth precedes faith.

First, Calvinists lay great stress on the parallel between spiritual birth and physical birth. They will often argue that a sinner can no more decide when he will be reborn than a child can decide when he or she will be physically born. The problem with this approach is that Jesus no where says that we are to understand his words in this way. What about labor pains? What about the passage through the birth canal? Should we also seek to draw parallels from these aspects of physical birth? If not, then why not? How do we know which parallels should be drawn, and which should not. The best approach is to let Jesus instruct us.

Christ's emphasis in these passages is the need for new life and does not deal with the issue of how that life is attained until later in the chapter. If we follow Jesus' discourse we will discover that Jesus answers the question of whether we should draw such a parallel with physical birth. All we can rightly deduce from John 3:3, 6 is that no one can see or enter the Kingdom of God until they are born again. He does not tell us how one becomes born again until later in the passage. We need to be careful not to read our doctrinal biases into Christ's words before he has had an opportunity to further explain them.

Second, Calvinists lay great stress on the word "see". They argue that one cannot believe in Christ until one first "sees" the Kingdom. They believe that "seeing" must precede "believing". Since one cannot "see" the Kingdom of God until one is born again, then it would seem logical that one cannot believe what they "see" until they are born again. This is the more significant Calvinist argument. But will it stand up to scrutiny?

There are a few problems with this argument. First, "seeing" the Kingdom of God does not necessarily mean "seeing" the need for the redemption offered in the atonement of Jesus Christ. One does not necessarily need to fully comprehend the nature of God's Kingdom in order to recognized one's need for a redeemer. This is a false correlation that is not supported by the text. Second, it seems better to understand "see" and "enter" as metaphors for full experience. The Greek word for "see" in this passage is also used as a means of "experiencing" something in other passages. In Acts 2:27, 31; 13:35 and Heb. 11:5 the word is used of experiencing either death or corruption. It is used in 1 Pet. 3:10 for experiencing "good days". It is used for experiencing "sorrow" in Rev. 18:7.

The TDNT (the one volume abridged addition) says of eidon [which is used in John 3 and the other passages mentioned above] and horao [another word for "see"] that:

Often the verbs mean "to perceive" in such senses as "to experience," "to note," "to establish," "to realize," "to know," "to judge," "to mark," "to heed". (pg. 710)

Calvinist D.A. Carson says of "see" in John 3:3:

"To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, "to see the kingdom of God" was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life. The same equivalence is found in the Synoptics (cf. Mk. 9:43, 45 'to enter life', parallel to 9:47 'to enter the kingdom of God/); it is particularly strong in the Fourth Gospel, where 'kingdom' language crops up only here (3:3, 5) and at Jesus' trial (18:36) while 'life' language predominates. One of the most startling features of the kingdom announced in the Synoptics is that it is not exclusively future. The kingdom, God's saving and transforming reign, has in certain respects already been inaugurated in the person works and message of Jesus." (D.A. Carson, The Gospel According To John, P. 188)

Since Jesus uses "enter" to further describe "see" it seems unreasonable to conclude that Jesus is speaking of anything other than fully experiencing God's Kingdom. He is describing the transition from one sphere of existence to another.

This was especially relevant in light of the Jewish understanding that they would experience God's Kingdom on the basis of being a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus would have approached Jesus believing that he was already entitled to a share of God's Kingdom on the basis of the promises given to Abraham in Genesis 13:14, 15 and 17:18. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came they would simply move into His Kingdom on the merits of God's promise to Abraham's descendants and on the merits of obedience to the Mosaic Law. While the Jews believed that they could earn heaven on the merits of their works, they seemed to primarily believe that they were unconditionally promised the eternal inheritance simply because they were circumcised Jews. F. Leroy Forlines describes this important Jewish understanding of salvation.

"We are confronted with two seemingly contradictory concepts in the New Testament concerning the Jewish viewpoint of their own salvation. The first is the concept of unconditional salvation of all Jews as the seed of Abraham. It was this viewpoint that caused John the Baptist to say, 'Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with your repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, we have Abraham for our father; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham' (Mt. 3:9; see also Jn. 8:33-40). The other viewpoint is that they were depending on their own works. This viewpoint is set forth by Paul when he said, 'But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works' (Rom. 9:31, 32)." [Quest for Truth pg. 347-emphasis his]

Forlines then goes on to argue that even the Jewish view on justification by works was in the context of the corporate righteousness of Israel. The Jews then did not view salvation as individual but as corporate, based on the promises made to Abraham and on the corporate righteousness of Israel. He explains,

"It appears that these two observations about salvation among the Jews are mutually exclusive. However, from all that I can gather, Jews were not as concerned with harmonization as some of us are. They were more content to let some loose ends dangle in their thought. E.P. Sanders astutely observes, 'Rabbis were not concerned with the internal systematic relationship of their statements.' [ibid. 348]

He then concludes with,

"Their concept of unconditional corporate election of all Jews was by far the more basic of the two thoughts. All the rest of their thoughts must be weighed in the light of that foundational thought." [ibid. 348]

This is the cultural context in which this dialogue between a leading Jew and Jesus takes place. Jesus is correcting two fundamental misconceptions of the Jewish understanding of salvation. They will not inherit the Kingdom of God unconditionally. They must be changed. They must be reborn. This change does not take place corporately but individually, "No one [individual] can see" or "enter" the Kingdom of God without first being reborn. The Kingdom of God is not unconditionally guaranteed to them. They cannot enter the Kingdom until their sin has been dealt with, for the Kingdom of God is a holy Kingdom. There is need for real atonement before one can enter into the life of God's Kingdom. Since sin brings death "you must be born again". How does this happen? Nicodemus asks Jesus this same question in verse 9, "how can this be?"

Jesus quickly directs Nicodemus to the necessity of atonement. He says in verses 14 and 15, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." So how does one attain the new life necessary for seeing and entering the Kingdom of God? He must look to the lifted up Messiah and believe in him. While Calvinists lay great stress on the analogy of spiritual birth with physical birth, they virtually ignore the implications involved with the analogy of the bronze serpent that Jesus specifically used to answer Nicodemus' question of how one becomes born again (vs. 9).

The Israelites in the desert were dying from the deadly venom of snake bites. The only way they could escape certain death was to look to the bronze serpent that God had provided for their healing. Those Israelites were dying until they fixed their gaze on the bronze snake. Jesus correlates this "looking" to the snake with "believing". When someone believes in Christ the blood of atonement is applied, the curse of sin and death is broken, and new life begins. If the Calvinistic interpretation of John3:3, 6 is correct then Jesus chose a poor analogy to explain to Nicodemus how the new life begins. If their view is correct then we must also believe that the Israelites in the desert were not given life as a result of fixing their gaze on the bronze serpent, but were rather first given life so that they could then look to [or "see"] the serpent. In this view they looked to the serpent because they had already been cured of the venom's deadly effects. They would not have looked to the serpent to secure life; they would have looked to the serpent because they had already been given life. I would venture to say that no Calvinist believes that the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent because they had already been cured and given life. Since this is the illustration that Christ chose to explain the nature of his atonement and the means by which we attain life, it is absurd to believe that Jesus was teaching that the new birth precedes faith in John 3:3, 6. Consider the parallels,

The Bronze Snake:

The Israelites had to look to the bronze serpent to escape the deadly effects of the venom and experience life, "Anyone who is bitten can look at [the serpent] and live...when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake they lived." [Numbers 21:8, 9]

The Crucified Messiah:

Only those who look to the Messiah's atonement by faith in His blood will escape the deadly effects of sin and experience new life, "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [as a necessary atonement], that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life." [Jn. 3:14-16]

Rather than allowing Jesus to explain His own teaching, the Calvinist wants to "explain" what Jesus meant before He does. If we want to understand what Jesus meant by His comments in John 3:3, 6, we only need to keep reading. If we can resist the temptation to read our theology into his comments we will soon discover that one is born again by believing in Christ and thereby appropriating the benefits of His atonement. Only after the blood of the "lifted up" Messiah is applied through faith can one begin to experience the eternal life that begins at the new birth.

When Jesus said that no one can "see" or "enter" the Kingdom of God unless that person was born again, He was teaching the necessity of the application of His atoning work. Only when sin is dealt with in the life of the individual can that person experience life and move into the sphere of God's holy Kingdom. Jesus made it clear that the soul cleansing benefits of His atoning work are given only to those who "believe" in Him.

Nicodemus may have walked away confused and frustrated but Jesus perfectly explained to him why the Jewish view of salvation was inadequate. The only way for anyone, Jew or Gentile, to attain the life of the Messianic Kingdom is for them to personally put their faith in the atoning work of the Messiah. While John 3:3 and 6, when read in the context of the entire chapter, lends further weight to the Arminian view, it fails as a proof text for the Calvinistic doctrine of regeneration preceding faith.

17 comments:

Classical Arminianism said...

WELCOME BACK! And you can only imagine how welcome you truly are! That post was your best yet. Especially in light of what I have been experiencing over the last two days.

Being back at college is not only challenging because of the load that I am required to read, but also because of the interaction I have with other students. When I was cornered over the issue of the Purpose of Regeneration (something I had never truly considered), I was taken aback.

Little did I realize that ONLY reformed commentaries insisted that the Purpose of regeneration was for the sinner to believe in Christ. ALL other commentaries insisted that faith precedes regeneration and then defined what the Purpose of regeneration was for.

You can imagine how happy I was to visit your blog tonight. Thank you. I will give a direct link to this post for further study.

Thanks again,
Billy

Anonymous said...

The bigger question is do the Articles of Remonstrants teach regeneration before faith?

kangeroodort said...

anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by. You said,

"The bigger question is do the Articles of Remonstrants teach regeneration before faith?"

Surely you do not mean that what the Remonstrants taught or belived is a more important question than what the word of God teaches?

Are you referring to the articles of Remonstrants where it is implied that one must be born again in order to have faith? I will likely do a post on that subject in the future. Feel free to stop by with your comments when I do.

God Bless,
Ben

Anonymous said...

I look forward to the post where you reconcile the articles to fit what you are saying. It seems to me that most Arminian's do not follow the direct teaching of Arminius, yet the claim they do and at the same time denounce every other theology.

kangeroodort said...

I will not be trying to reconcile anything. I am not committed to everything that either the Remonstrants or Arminius taught and believed. Every Calvinist that I have ever debated has objected when I brought up specific teachings of Calvin that demonstrated the problems with their theology. They constantly remind me that one does not have to agree with all that Calvin said in order to be a Calvinist. I think it is only fair to give Arminians the same freedom.

I do stand with Arminius and the Remonstrants against the doctrines of Calvinism, though we may differ on some of the details.

It is quite clear that Arminius denied any gracious working of God (regeneration or otherwise) that necessitated saving faith in the individual. If faith were caused irresistibly in the individual it could not truly be a condition.

For example,

"If any one says, “God wills first absolutely to save some particular person; and, since he wills that, he also wills to bestow faith on him, because without faith, it is not possible for him to be saved.” I tell him, that he lays down contradictory propositions — that “God wills absolutely to save
some one without regard to faith,” and yet that, “according to the will of God, he cannot be saved without faith.” Through the will of God it has been revealed to us, without faith it is impossible for any man to please God, or to be saved. There is, therefore, in God no other will, by which he wills any one to be absolutely saved without consideration of faith. For contradictory wills cannot be attributed to God.

If any person replies, “God wills the end before he wills the means leading to the end; but salvation is the end, and faith the means leading to the end,” I answer, first, Salvation is not the end of God; but salvation and faith are the gifts of God, bound and connected together in this order between themselves through the will of God, that faith should precede salvation, both with regard to God, the donor of it; and in reality. Secondly. Faith is a CONDITION required by God to be performed by him who shall be saved, before it is MEANS of obtaining that salvation. Since God will not bestow salvation on any one, except on him who believes, man is on this account incited to be willing to believe, because he knows that his chief good is placed in salvation. Man, therefore, tried by faith, as the means, to attain to salvation as the end; because he knows that he cannot possibly obtain salvation except through that means. And this knowledge he does not acquire except through the declaration of the divine Will, by which God requires faith from those who wish to be saved, that is, by which he places faith as a condition in the object, that is, in the person to be saved." ["The Apology or Defense", Works of James Arminius, Weslyan Heritage Collection]

The bottom line for Arminus and the Remonstrants was that the grace of God that leads to regeneration is resistible. On this point, I fully agree.

Anonymous said...

'Since God will not bestow salvation on any one, except on him who believes'

Does this mean that man plays a role in his salvation? Does this not then put a conditon on grace? If faith comes before grace what then did God forsee about my faith? Does this mean that my faith is separate from him? Where did my faith come from? Could not then some have more faith than me and would I then have different faith before grace then i would after grace?

It all seems strange to me. One problem I guess is if we say that He only save's the elect and its a small number, but why does it have to be a small number? does the Scripture not tell us that the saved are of great numbers, too many to count? It is hard for me to find a Calvinist that believes only a few people are elect and that the vast majority of people are lost.

kangeroodort said...

Does this mean that man plays a role in his salvation? Does this You said,

"Does this mean that man plays a role in his salvation?

Only in the sense that one either accepts it or rejects it.

"Does this not then put a conditon on grace?"

Saving grace is accessed by faith (Rom. 5:2)

"If faith comes before grace what then did God forsee about my faith?"

God's prevenient grace precedes and enables the response of faith. Faith then results in God's gracious act of regeneration.

"Does this mean that my faith is separate from him?"

It is a complete trust in Him and the merit of His blood (Rom. 3:21-25)

"Where did my faith come from?"

You and God. It comes from God in that God enabled you to respond to His grace. It comes from you in that it is your genuine response to God's grace.

"Could not then some have more faith than me and would I then have different faith before grace then i would after grace?"

Could you elaborate on this. It is a little hard to follow.

Anonymous said...

Faith then results in God's gracious act of regeneration

So God's Grace which is suppose to be unmerited in anyway really is merited on my faith in him?
Sounds like unmerited to me, i will give you my unmerited grace because you believe, see how nice i am.

kangeroodort said...

"It all seems strange to me. One problem I guess is if we say that He only save's the elect and its a small number, but why does it have to be a small number? does the Scripture not tell us that the saved are of great numbers, too many to count? It is hard for me to find a Calvinist that believes only a few people are elect and that the vast majority of people are lost."

The issue isn't so much how many are reprobated in the Calvinist scheme but rather whether it is consistent with God's loving nature to arbitrarily pass over those He could save. The other issue has to do with the genuineness of God's offer of salvation if He makes it impossible for many to respond.

The Bible does seem to make it clear that in comparison to those who will be saved, there will be a far greater number who will be lost.

Matt. 7:13-14,

"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it."

So comparitively speaking there are "many" who will be lost, and "few" who will be saved.

kangeroodort said...

"So God's Grace which is suppose to be unmerited in anyway really is merited on my faith in him?
Sounds like unmerited to me, i will give you my unmerited grace because you believe, see how nice i am."

Faith does not merit salvation. Faith is the condition that God requires must first be met. A condition is not necessarily meritorious. Faith, is in fact, the total reliance on the merits of Christ's blood. Salvation is conditioned on faith, not merited by it.

You may want to check out my post on "The Nature of Saving Faith".

kangeroodort said...

You may also want to check out my post, "Is Arminian Theology Synergistic".

Anonymous said...

Why harden hearts? Why is is said that it is good to hide and conceal these things from them? is that not God passing over them by not even making it where they can understand? Seems like we want to limit what God can and can not do.

kangeroodort said...

"Why harden hearts? Why is is said that it is good to hide and conceal these things from them? is that not God passing over them by not even making it where they can understand? Seems like we want to limit what God can and can not do."

You are kind of all over the place. Are you truly seeking answers, or do you just like to argue?

As far as hardening hearts I have a few comments.

1) That God hardens hearts does not imply that the one hardened was never given a genuine opportunity to respond to God's grace.

2) Most scholars see God's hardening in the sense of giving one over to one's stubborn rebellion rather than an active hardening on God's part. Even most Calvinists see God's hardening as passive. Look at this entry from "Vines Expository Dictionary" regarding those "fitted" for destruction,

3. KATARTIZO: to make fit, to equip, prepare (kata, down, artos, a joint), is rendered “fitted” in Rom. 9:22, of vessels of wrath; here the Middle Voice signifies that those referred to fitted themselves for destruction (as illustrated in the case of Pharaoh, the self-hardening of whose heart is accurately presented in the R.V. in the first part of the series of incidents in the Exodus narrative, which records Pharaoh’s doings; only after repeated and persistent obstinacy on his part is it recorded that God hardened his heart.)

3) If Total Depravity is true in the way that Calvinists define it, then what need does God have for hardening hearts? We are all naturally rebellious God haters, so what is there to harden? That is why even most Calvinist see God's hardening in a passive sense. God simply denies the reprobate the grace necessary to turn and be saved.

Anonymous said...

Matthew 11:25,26
At that time Jesus answered and said "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight."

mark pierson said...

"While Calvinists lay great stress on the analogy of spiritual birth with physical birth, they virtually ignore the implications involved with the analogy of the bronze serpent that Jesus specifically used to answer Nicodemus' question of how one becomes born again (vs. 9)."

That is flat out wrong. Have you ever examined any sermons by Calvinist preachers?! Look at my own blog, beginning with October, 2005 through November, 2005. You'll se plenty of messages of looking to Christ and His sacrifice in order to be saved.

Are you familiar with Luther's "Bondage of The Will"? Or Edward's "Freedom of the Will? It would seem your definition of "unable to respond" is deficient. Hostility is the reason people don't come to God. See John 3:19-20; Romans 1:18-32, which are descriptions of the entire human race, not just a few. Hence, the need to be born from above in order to even see the Kingdom.

Peace.

kangeroodort said...

Mark,

You said,

"That is flat out wrong. Have you ever examined any sermons by Calvinist preachers?! Look at my own blog, beginning with October, 2005 through November, 2005. You'll se plenty of messages of looking to Christ and His sacrifice in order to be saved."

My point was not that Reformed preachers never mention this, but ignore the implications as I have argued in my post. The implications are that one must first look to Christ in faith before they can experience new life in Him. Do your Calvinist preachers say this? Do you? If you do then we are in full agreement.

Jay said...

I could not help noticing the irony when people incorrectly try to draw such strong conclusions from making a direct literal comparison between our physical birth and our second spiritual birth - i.e. Nicodemus himself fell into similar misgivings within the passage,
"How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?".

I appreciate the mindset that seems to be promoted in this blog, one that seeks to begin by first drawing our understandings from the scriptures instead of injecting a theological system of thought into them.

God bless you and keep you