Addressing Calvinism, 3 of 4: Faith Comes Before the New Birth
Maybe you've seen someone driving a pickup truck with a trailer attached behind it, trying to back the whole thing up in reverse. It's no easy task! One small error in the angle of approach can lead to disaster, as the trailer suddenly veers way off course. Imagine trying to drive everywhere in reverse like that! If we "get the cart before the horse," so to speak, things can quickly go wrong. Similarly, the order of events can be important in doctrine.
I think Calvinists create a lot of extra work for themselves by saying that the new birth comes before faith. It's natural to think of faith coming first, considering all the times God says we must believe in order to be saved. It takes a lot of effort to turn this around, and I think it ends up being a manmade doctrine, not a natural one from God's word.
I'd like to make two clarifications before we get started. No one gets saved apart from the convicting grace of the Holy Spirit, and I don't know any Christian who would deny that. And so it's not a question of whether we are capable of having saving faith in our natural fallen state on our own, or whether we can choosing Jesus Christ apart from divine grace. Rather, it is a question of whether the Holy Spirit can enable us to believe the gospel through His conviction and grace, even before we have been born again. I believe that He does.
One more clarification is that Calvinists (and most others, I suppose) say that the new birth is the same thing as "regeneration" (Titus 3:5). Maybe it is, though I'm not entirely sure. For example, the "regenerated" world of the Millennium (Matthew 19:28) will still have sin and death, only not nearly as pronounced as today; it is different than the brand new heaven and earth, or the new creation, of Revelation 21. To avoid any confusion, I will use the term "new birth" in this discussion rather than "regeneration," since I think for this discussion it's the clearer term.
Problems with the Calvinistic View
From the Bible, it's obvious that faith comes before salvation (Acts 16:31) and adoption (Galatians 3:26). Reading the Bible as a child, it always seemed natural to think of salvation, the new birth, and adoption happening together, packed into the same gift; but maybe you could answer, "These events are split up: first is the new birth, which then causes our faith, and then comes salvation and adoption." I never got that sense from reading the Bible myself, though I did understand that it is only through the Holy Spirit's conviction that we believe and are saved. In I Peter 1:23, we see specifically that we are "born again...by the word of God", implying, I believe, faith when hearing it (cf. Romans 10:17), meaning faith comes first. Once we repent and believe, then we are then born again, and immediately (I John 5:1).
But let's "put the cart before the horse" (in my view) by assuming that the new birth does come before faith. As we go along our way, we quickly run into a few disasters. For example, does saving faith instantly follow the new birth, as quickly as light follows the flip of a lightswitch? If so, what about the verses that Calvinists sometimes use to refer to the new birth, where there is an apparent delay (e.g., Acts 16:14)? Even the drawing or "pulling" in John 6:44 implies a process of time. Simon Peter had to "draw" or pull a net with 153 fish to shore, and since it was time for breakfast, I suspect he pulled it very quickly. But it still took him some time. (John 21:11) Well, Calvinists believe that if you haven't been born again, then you can't react to God's call any more than a dead man can react to a trumpeter's call to arms. And so the "draw" or "pull" couldn't start until after the new birth, in the Calvinist model. Yet many Christians testify to the Holy Spirit drawing them for a long time, many years, before they repented and believed. And so when, exactly, does this new birth take place? And if there is a delay before faith, there's another problem. There would be a season where the elect are born again, yet having no saving faith. They would have a new nature that cannot sin, as children born of God with "the seed of God remaining in him" (I John 3:9; II Corinthians 5:17), yet all the while, being unable to please God, with the wrath of God abiding on them, and on the path to hell (John 3:36; Hebrews 11:6). Is that reasonable? That doesn't seem right, either.
We would have yet another problem. Why would God plead with people to repent and believe if they are completely unable, unless He enables them? (E.g., Acts 17:30-31; 13:46; Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38 "every one" vs. Acts 2:41v41 "they that gladly"; Ezekiel 37.) You might say, "God commands us to keep the law, and we aren't able to do that in our own strength either." Man is obligated to keep the law for obvious reasons of justice; he is able to keep it outwardly to a very great extent for the good of society; and above all, God has a loving purpose, using it as "a schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ" (Galatians 3:24). And so in that case, it makes sense. But the gospel is different. What obligation could there possibly be for a man to receive a gospel that was never meant for him in the first place? How could it be disrespectful to refuse a gift wrapped only for your neighbor but not for you? What justice could there be in punishing a man for not receiving a gift which transcends the law (Romans 11:6), and is supposed to deliver him from the punishment of the law, if he is completely incapable of responding? If God knows a man is incapable of receiving a pardon, and yet pleads with him to take it, and then punishes him yet more when he doesn't, isn't that a dishonest charade, even cruel mockery? Yes, and God would not do that. And so evidently, man can receive the gospel before being born again, though only by the grace of the Holy Spirit's conviction (Luke 5:17).
Maybe you've heard some people say, "You didn't have any choice in your first birth; and you don't have any choice in your second birth, either." But that comparison isn't fair. You didn't even exist before your first birth and conception, and so a choice on your part wasn't even a possibility. But your second birth is of your spirit; and by then, you already have a spirit, a soul, a body, and a will, and a choice on your part is now possible.
But aren't we spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13)? How can a dead man do anything unless he is first resurrected? The Bible uses many analogies to express different aspects of the truth, and we can't take a single analogy too far by itself. For instance, we just talked about the analogy of a "second birth," which is different than the analogy of resurrection, even though they both describe aspects of the same thing. Jesus also said the unsaved are "sick" (Mark 2:17), and sick people can at least ask the physician for help. Another analogy is leprosy, or even bondage; and dead men have no need to be "bound." And why would Satan "blind" dead men against the gospel (II Corinthians 4:4)? How could he even do that? Yet the Bible says he does. And in some contexts, even death can be expressed in degrees (Luke 10:30). See also Ephesians 5:14, Romans 6:2, 11. We can't take the single analogy of death too far, to the exclusion of the other analogies.
What about Romans 8:29-30, sometimes called the "golden chain of redemption"? Interestingly, the first "link" in this golden chain is God's foreknowing, or knowing ahead of time, which I think is actually one of the most powerful arguments against Calvinism. But that aside, if you re-read the verses carefully, I think you'll find that it doesn't say what Calvinists claim. Yes, one of the steps for those whom He foreknows is to "call" them, but that doesn't mean He calls only them. And whom He called of those who were foreknown and predestinated He justified; i.e., He adds a fourth link to the end of the three preceding links. To me, that's simply all it says in that regard.
However, I do believe saints are "called" in a couple of senses in which unbelievers are not. For one thing, God gives us each an individual "calling" when we enter His family (I Corinthians 7:20). And second, I believe that God's call, as with many things, is unfolding; that is, as we respond to it, we receive more of it (e.g., Acts 10:5-6; 9:6). Someone asks you, "Did you call Mr. Smith?" You respond, "Well, I tried, but he didn't answer." The word "call" can mean to simply dial his number; but in a deeper sense, it is only a "phone call" if he picks up. Similarly, God dials the numbers of people as they hear the gospel; but most people never "pick up" the phone. Yet when they do, they receive God's "call." In this way, saints are "the called" in a special way (as in, "Guess who called me today?"). But the others could be "the called" also, if they would pick up the phone.
Interestingly, an abundance of the wrong kind of talk can actually darken counsel (Job 38:2). I think this applies especially to Calvinism, in the sense that the longer they talk about why certain verses teach Calvinism, the harder it is to see the truth. Brilliant people can oftentimes (intentionally or not) snatch the key of knowledge and hide it beneath a complex web of logic (Luke 11:52). And so we can't judge by appearance, which can be made deceitful, but must get to the heart of the issue to "judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). I guess what I'm saying is, we must be spiritually critical, in a healthy sense, when we hear people expositing the Bible, because if they're promoting wrong doctrines, or doing it with the wrong heart, there is a good chance that it could warp our own views. I think it all comes back to lots of prayer and constant reliance on the Holy Spirit for guidance (Acts 17:11, John 16:13).
So far, we have seen the reasons why I believe Jesus died for everyone, why God wants everyone to repent unto life, and why faith comes before the new birth. In the next and final post, we will look at why I believe we must make a genuine choice to receive Jesus Christ to be saved.