It has often been a great temptation to set God’s sovereign, life-giving, grace against the divinely ordained means that he uses to bring about new life. It has been an equally great temptation so to identify that grace with those means as to turn the means into magic. Both errors are to be avoided. The challenge is to how to avoid revivalism, setting grace against means, and sacerdotalism, swallowing up grace with the means without falling into the opposite error. The first thing to do is refuse false dichotomies. The Reformed churches have long confessed (and continue to confess) that both things are true: God is sovereign and he uses means. We must embrace both things at the same time.
It might also be helpful to remember that the word we have used to describe the sovereign life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, regeneration, has, in the history of the church had more than one sense. In the ancient, medieval, and through most of the Reformation period the words regeneration and renovation were used in the way that we use the words progressive sanctification today. It is helpful to remember this when reading, e.g., patristic texts on baptism. The association of baptism with regeneration does not automatically denote the ex opere (from the working or from the use) conferral of new life. It may or it may not. The context will tell. The Reformation-era writers often used regeneration to mean progressive sanctification but sometimes, however, the lines were blurry. The fellow whom I studied, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) regularly taught that Christians are only “partly regenerated.” Did he mean to say that they were only partly made alive or did he mean to say that we are only partly sanctified? Certainly he meant the latter but I have wondered sometimes if he did not also mean the former. The turning point for the Reformed use of regeneration was probably the Synod of Dort, where we faced a grave challenge from the Remonstrants, who opposed the Reformation doctrines, e.g., unconditional election and free salvation. They were masters at adding legal conditions to our salvation. To clarify Reformed doctrine, Synod and most of the Reformed writers after Synod tended to reserve regeneration for the moment of awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life. Even after Dort, however, the old usage occurred. To make matters even fuzzier, however, it is not uncommon to see an earlier Protestant theologian (e.g., Calvin) using regeneration to denote the moment of awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life. Again, it is essential to pay attention to the context to determine the sense and the author’s intent.
My pastor, Chris Gordon, is host of Abounding Grace Radio and recently we sat down to discuss these issues. AGR airs daily on KARI in the Pacific Northwest (4:30 PM), in San Diego on KPRZ (1:30 PM and 4:00 PM), in KRDU in Fresno (4:00 PM), KPDQ in Portland (1:30 PM and 4:00 PM), GraceRadio 107.9FM in Modesto (7:00 AM and 7:00 PM), and weekly on CJFW in Terrace, B.C. Canada (7:30 PM Sundays), and 8:00 AM and 9:00 PM (Sundays) on CFIS 93.1 FM (Prince George, B.C.). AGR also airs on KVOH out of Zambia into the larger African continent.
Here is part 2 of our discussion:
Here is part 1 of the discussion.