Updated: Jan 19
“What is Conversion? Regeneration, faith and repentance”
Today we are going to be asking the question what is the biblical doctrine of conversion. The last couple of weeks we looked at the person and work of Jesus. Today we want to look at how one comes to benefit from Christ and become a saved person, that is how does conversion take place? When someone hears the Gospel of Jesus how does one become a follower of Jesus? To answer this question we’re going to look at two different angles: How conversion begins and what conversion is. From the outset every Christian no matter how diverse their background or testimony are works of sovereign grace. Christians aren’t born into the world, they are walking miracles. They aren’t born but made, not naturally but supernaturally. And so I want to focus in on this first aspect, how conversion begins or what the cause of our conversion is: Regeneration.
If someone started talking about regeneration you’re either in a biology class or a church because you won’t hear it much elsewhere.
Some might recognize the word by its biological use in which it describes the regrowth of a lost limb, or a healing factor of the cell.
Others may understand the term in an electrical sense for example, when the power goes out in a neighborhood, people go and get a generator to “regenerate” the power i.e turn the power back on.
However, this morning we are not electricians or biologists but theologians, all of us as students and stewards of the word of God and so we want to know how other students of scripture and of course scripture itself use the word. What is the theological and biblical meaning of regeneration and what on earth are we to take it to mean?
To begin with the Apostle Paul says “But according to his mercy, He saved us by the washing of Regeneration and Renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:5
In this section Paul is speaking about that initial moment in which God was pleased to sovereignly intervene and change the hearts of his people by the Holy Spirit, bringing them to salvation by his own will and purpose.
So what do I and what do I take Paul to be referring to by the term “Regeneration”?
Regeneration refers to the act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to one dead in sin.
Another biblical term that we can use to describe this moment of the imparting of new spiritual life is “the new birth” i.e “being born again” or “born of God”in John’s letters and Gospel along with Peter.
Peter for instance says in 1 Peter 1:3 says “he caused us to be born again”, and in the book of John in ch.3 Jesus himself says one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God.
What I believe the Apostle Peter, John and Jesus were referring to is this concept of regeneration, the moment a sinner, corrupted and depraved by sin, receives new spiritual life by the work of the Holy Spirit.1
So here I want to briefly explore three brief factors of this concept of regeneration or the new birth.
1. It is the Imparting of New Spiritual Life
The Scriptures describe the unregenerate man, (one who has not experienced the new birth) as “dead in trespasses” Col. 2:13. It describes fallen humanity as “Children by nature of wrath” Eph.2:3, incapable of submitting to the Law of God and incapable of even pleasing God (Rom.8:7-8).
It is said of man in his fallen state, “no one does good, no one seeks God”.
Jesus says “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” John 6:44.
Man prior to the new birth according to Jesus is incapable of even faith, of even Believing in Him!
Jesus also says elsewhere in John chapter 3 that if one is not born again he cannot enter the kingdom nor can see the kingdom of God.
So if a person is to respond in faith he must be born again. Regenerated.
Man is spiritually dead and naturally does what he wants which apart from God showing him grace has everything and anything to do but to do wit God. However what God does in regeneration is make us alive (Eph.2:4), the new birth is a resurrection.
Another way to look at it is regeneration is an action of God in which he takes out the heart of stone and gives in its place a living and beating heart and writes his law on our hearts (Ezekiel 36).
All who have not been born again and experienced regeneration are blinded to spiritual things, blind to the gospel but in regeneration the eyes of our hearts are opened to the beauty of God, to the glory of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
A salvation historical reminder-
In the Garden before the fall of man by sin, the human race was morally perfect. Ecclesiates 7:29, "God made man upright" but the rest of the verse says concerning mankind as a whole, post creation narrative "but they have sought out many schemes".
The fall in Genesis 3 had an effect that struck us to the core of our very persons so that there is no part of a fallen human being that is unclaimed and untouched by sin, "by nature we are children of wrath" Eph.2:3,
God himself said that "the intentions of man's heart are evil from their youth" Gen.8:21,
David confessing his sin in Psalm 51 says "behold in iniquity I was brought forth, and in sin my mother conceived me".
This is why a new birth is a necessary, "Can the ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?". In order for people who are dead in their sins and tresspasses to change, God must do a work in our hearts and wills.
A miracle must take place for us to change, a powerful work must be done in our hearts by the Spirit of God.
2. It Is an Act of God
There is a term in systematic theology and reformed confessions that I have not introduced yet: the term is “effectual calling”.
How we are born again, how we become regenerate is through God calling us effectually.
This term has special emphasis on regeneration being a sovereign work of God and gives us a snapshot the moment we get new spiritual life. We get it by God calling us. Effectual calling refers to God's effectual summoning of us which causes us to be born again. When we heard of Jesus and what he did on our behalf, we only ever responded because of this call. It is a divine sovereign call which creates what it commands. God says at this moment to the deaf heart “hear” and to blind eyes, "see" and the miracle of hearing and seeing sinners happens, called Christians by this divine summoning.
This call is distinguished from the universal Gospel call.
The universal Gospel call is the invitation to every person hearing the Gospel to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ; one can accept or reject this invitation, for “many are called but few are chosen”. People give this
Gospel invitation externally and universally, those who hear this invitation hear it with some means of external communication. Anybody can hear this call and accept it or deny it.
Effectual calling however is the moment God speaks not to the ear but to the heart, and it is not the call of a facebook friend request nor is it God sending you a Dm you get to reject but rather God summons new life from us as he summoned light from darkness in Gen. 1.
As the Apostle Paul says “ And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God... For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
We were blinded to the truth of the Gospel but in an instance God miraculously opened the eyes of the blind, he called us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” as 2.Peter says but for further example Paul tells us that how he became a Christian was when he was called. Galatians 1:15-16,
"But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;".
This is an important point to be made about regeneration is that it is not something that we bring about but something God does. Nobody births themselves, and nobody new births themselves either.
God does this work of regeneration, we don’t initiate this work nor do we “cooperate” with God or give him permission. We are completely passive in the sense that God is the one at work in regeneration not us.
3. The New Birth is mysterious
Now how exactly does the Holy Spirit do the work of Regeneration in our hearts? The wisest answer is ultimately it is a mystery. We know the results, we experience Regeneration but how does God take the human person dead in sin and bring them to life? It is truly a mystery at its depths, Jesus says in John 3:8 “ 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."
The word “wind” is a play on words, the word “spirit” and “wind” are the same in greek.
Jesus is saying the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is like the wind: first, the work is a sovereign work, “the wind blows where it wishes”, the wind comes on its own accord, so the Spirit works in regeneration by his own will when he chooses on whomever he chooses.
Second, the Spirit's work is invisible to the eye, you cannot see the work but you certainly can feel it, in the same way, you can't see the inner workings of the Holy Spirit but you certainly have experienced the work of Regeneration if you are a believer.
Thirdly, the work of Regeneration is mysterious, “you hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”, the work of the Holy spirit being hidden to the eye is mysterious in its metaphysical details.6
We do not see the work of regeneration as it is an invisible work done on our hearts not something visible but it is something that produces visible fruit and evidences that show that the work has occurred.
The New birth is a beautiful mystery as to its details. No eye has seen it but all believers have experienced it. The details are hidden but its fruits will be manifest.
Now that we’ve briefly considered the cause of our conversion, that being the new birth, the regenerating act of God, I think the words of JI Packer are helpful in looking at this point:
“Why do you "thank" God for your conversion? It is because you know in your heart that God was entirely responsible for it. You thank God because you do not attribute your repenting and believing to your own wisdom, or prudence, or sound judgment, or good sense. You have never for one moment supposed that the decisive contribution to your salvation was yours and not God's. You have never told God that, while you are grateful for the means and opportunities of grace that He gave you, you realize that you have to thank, not Him, but yourself for the fact that you responded to His call. Your heart revolts at the very thought of talking to God in such terms. In fact, you thank Him no less sincerely for the gift of faith and repentance than for the gift of a Christ to trust and turn to."
We have discussed in the prior section what is the cause of Conversion, and to summarize how regeneration relates to conversion in better terms than mine, Steve Lawson I believe gives a great summary,
“Theologically speaking, regeneration and conversion are two sides of the same coin. Regeneration is God’s sovereign activity by the Holy Spirit in the soul of one who is spiritually dead in sin. Regeneration is the implantation of new life in the soul. Regeneration gives the gifts of repentance and faith. On the other side of the coin, conversion is the response of the one who is regenerated. Esteemed British pastor D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said: “Conversion is the first exercise of the new nature in ceasing from old forms of life and starting a new life. It is the first action of the regenerate soul in moving from something to something.” Regeneration precedes and produces conversion. There is a cause-and-effect relationship between these two. Regeneration is the cause, and conversion is the effect. Put another way, regeneration is the root and conversion is the fruit.”
Now what is Conversion itself?
Wayne Grudem gives this definition,
“Conversion is our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for Salvation”. - Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 709
When we heard the gospel, and the Holy Spirit regenerated us, we responded in faith and repentance to Christ.
Now to begin looking at faith and repentance we must start by pointing out that they are distinguishable but inseparable aspects of coming to Christ.
There is Faith and there is repentance.
Faith and repentance are found throughout the Scriptures as being necessary for coming to Christ. It is the response of a born again believer.
Sinclair Ferguson in a very helpful article, to quote at length says the following:
“When the gospel is proclaimed, it seems at first sight that two different, even alternative, responses are called for. Sometimes the summons is, “Repent!” Thus, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 3:1–2). Again, Peter urged the hearers whose consciences had been ripped open on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Later, Paul urged the Athenians to “repent” in response to the message of the risen Christ (Acts 17:30).
Yet, on other occasions, the appropriate response to the gospel is, “Believe!” When the Philippian jailer asked Paul what he must do to be saved, the Apostle told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
But there is no mystery or contradiction here. Further on in Acts 17, we discover that precisely where the response of repentance was required, those who were converted are described as believing (Acts 17:30, 34).
Any confusion is surely resolved by the fact that when Jesus preached “the gospel of God” in Galilee, He urged His hearers, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14–15). Here repentance and faith belong together. They denote two aspects in conversion that are equally essential to it. Thus, either term implies the presence of the other because each reality (repentance or faith) is the sine qua non of the other.
In grammatical terms, then, the words repent and believe both function as a synecdoche—the figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole. Thus, repentance implies faith and faith implies repentance. One cannot exist without the other.”
He goes on to say the following,
“We cannot separate turning from sin in repentance and coming to Christ in faith. They describe the same person in the same action, but from different perspectives. In one instance (repentance), the person is viewed in relation to sin; in the other (faith), the person is viewed in relation to the Lord Jesus. But the individual who trusts in Christ simultaneously turns away from sin. In believing he repents and in repenting believes. Perhaps R. L.Dabney expressed it best when he insisted that repentance and faith are “twin” graces (perhaps we might say “conjoined twins”).”
Sinclair Ferguson, Tabletalk Magazine, (online address, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/faith-and-repentance/)
For one to turn from sin to Christ he must no doubt turn from sin, the heart that clings to sin as its Lord cannot cling to Christ as Lord. True conversion requires that the sinner abhor his sin and delight in Christ. Faith and repentance work as two sides of the same coin, coming to Christ is to forsake sin, and to forsake sin is to come to Christ. Neither is truly possible without the other. True faith requires true repentance and true repentance requires true faithh. Now looking at both distinctively: True saving faith is not a mere intellectual assent that Christ is Lord. Some have thought that if they simply “believe” Christ is Lord, that is believe certain facts about Christ than they are saved. However, “the demons believe and shudder”, a faith that is void of actual spiritual life is a faith that only apprehends facts, though true faith does believe certain things, for instance faith in barney won’t save you, faith in a false “Jesus” won’t save you, so there are certain things that one must “believe” or apprehend intellectually about the true Christ in order to be saved but this “knowledge” is not sufficient for true saving faith. Faith must find in Christ its only solace, it's only hope and cure for its sickness not only apprehending certain things, but Faith clings to Christ as its anchor behind the veil. The Heart knows no other balm or physician, it knows no other fount of salvation but wholly depends upon the person and work of Christ for his salvation.
Grudem gives this definition of saving faith:
“In addition to knowledge of the facts of the gospel and approval of those facts, in order to be saved, I must decide to depend on Jesus to save me. In doing this I move from being an interested observer of the facts of salvation and the teachings of the bible to being someone who enters into a new relationship with Jesus Christ as a living person. We may therefore define saving faith in the following way: Saving faith is trust in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God. This definition emphasizes that saving faith is not just a belief in facts but personal trust in Jesus to save me.”
True repentance is very much like true faith with the emphasis upon the turning from sin.
Grudem again is helpful in giving a definition,
“Repentance is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, a renouncing of it, and a sincere commitment to forsake it and walk in obedience to Christ. This definition indicates that repentance is something that can occur at a specific point in time, and is not equivalent to a demonstration of change in a person’s pattern of life. Repentance, like faith, is an intellectual understanding (that sin is wrong) an emotional approval of the teachings of scripture regarding sin ( a sorrow of sin and a hatred of it), and a personal decision to turn from it (a renouncing of sin and a decision of the will to forsake it and lead a life of obedience).
When we come to Christ, we come to him as both Savior: one who delivers us from sin, and from the wrath of God on account of sin and as the Lord: the one who is the sovereign ruler of the universe, the Messianic king to whom all nations will bow. If we receive him as savior, we must likewise submit to him as who he is: Lord. It has often been stated by many that it is impossible to accept Christ as savior but not as Lord, in other words, if one comes seeking only deliverance from their guilt but do not submit to his rightful place as king over their lives, it is an impossibility.
Christ is not divided into one or the other. Christ is not Lord or savior, he is Lord and savior.
How were we then converted? By God’s sovereign grace we were dependant upon Christ and Christ alone to save us, and we repented of our sins, trusting in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and right standing with God.