In the regeneration
My pastor turned up this great quote from Herman Bavinck:
In short, the counsel of God and the cosmic history that corresponds to it must not be pictured exclusively—as infra- and supralapsarianism did—as a single straight line describing relations only of before and after, cause and effect, means and end; instead, it should also be viewed as a systemic whole in which things occur side by side in coordinate relations and cooperate in the furthering of what always was, is, and will be the deepest ground of all existence: the glorification of God. Just as in any organism all the parts are interconnected and reciprocally determine each other, so the world as a whole is a masterpiece of divine art, in which all the parts are organically interconnected. And of that world, in all its dimensions, the counsel of God is the eternal design. (Reformed Dogmatics, II:392)
This is a great perspective on how God relates to time and history. God is the painter to our painting, the composer and conductor to our symphony.
I want to consider how this perspective relates to the doctrine of regeneration. We generally speak of the regeneration of the Christian almost as though God reaches down and flips an invisible switch inside of us from death to life. For example, Wayne Grudem writes:
We may define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. . . . Because regeneration is a work of God within us in which he gives us new life it is right to conclude that it is an instantaneous event. (Systematic Theology, 699-701)
This may be true as far as it goes, but it does not fully account for the way that God works with his creation and with us. Consider the example of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion-regeneration:
Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!”
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
In one sense, it is quite correct to say that something changed inside of Scrooge from death to life. But this is not the whole picture: it does not account for Dickens and his own steady resolve to make a new man out of Scrooge. In the same way, our understanding of regeneration should take into account how God works with his creation and how he imparts life to us. For our physical life we are dependent on God to sustain us at every moment; certainly we are equally dependent on God at every moment for our spiritual life. It is thus more proper to speak of regeneration as a settled determination on God’s part to continually fill us with life through his Spirit.
This perspective helps us in several ways. It reminds us that God is the source of regeneration, so that we are always looking to him rather than making a futile search into whether something invisible has happened inside ourselves. It reminds us that regeneration is an ongoing process. So, just as we cannot rely on past repentance and faith but must walk in new repentance and faith each day, neither can we rely on past regeneration. We must look to and ask for more help from the Spirit each day. Rather than asking “am I regenerate,” we ask “will God give his Spirit to those who ask him?” Yes (Luke 11:13), he will!
Another way to think of this is in terms of what we might call the tenses of salvation. There is a sense in which we can say we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Likewise, we have been given new life, we are being progressively given more abundant life, and we will finally be fully given life.
Calvin speaks of regeneration as occurring progressively. In the Institutes, he refers to it as something “which [God] begins in us” (Method and Arrangement III). It will be “complete” at “the final resurrection,” (M&A III) which he refers to as “the day of regeneration or resurrection of the body” (M&A IV). Calvin identifies regeneration with the ongoing procession of the Spirit to us, saying that “we have nothing of the Spirit except through regeneration” (II.3.1). Interestingly, he identifies regeneration and mortification as two halves of repentance, to the point that he says “by repentance I understand regeneration” (III.3.9). He later speaks of the “commencement and progress of regeneration” (III.11).
This definition of regeneration also underscores that it is a change in our status and position before God at least as much as it is an internal change in our persons. We are grafted into a tree (Romans 11), into a vine (John 15); we are planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). This links it closely with other great changes in status like justification and adoption. Adoption in particular is how we come to receive the Spirit (Romans 8:15). In regeneration we enter into God’s new creation, which is to say that we are reconciled to God and made a part of his kingdom (2 Corinthians 5:17ff) — again, a change in status.
Scripture uses the term regeneration to refer to a change in our status. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus refers to his kingdom and new creation itself as the regeneration. In Titus 3:5, our baptism is called the “washing of regeneration.” In The Priesthood of the Plebs, Peter Leithart demonstrated that baptism is a symbolic form of priestly investiture, hearkening back in all its imagery to passages like Leviticus 8:15. In terms of Titus, this means we can speak of baptism not only as our investiture into priesthood and sonship, but also our entry into the new-creation kingdom that is God’s church, our enrollment into an inheritance (Titus 3:7).
On the one hand, this serves as a warning to us that we are not meant to coast on yesterday’s experiences and accomplishments. But it also serves to remind us that God is near to us, and has a settled determination to provide all that is needed to complete his work (Philippians 4:19, 1:6).