Regeneration is a highly debated topic in Christian theology. The two well-known opposing thoughts are Calvinism and Arminianism. While in Calvinism a sinner must be regenerated first in order to have faith in Christ, in Arminianism, regeneration comes after faith (“Explaining Regeneration Preceding Faith” by Matthew Slick; “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” by Ben Henshaw). Both theologies have at their core the doctrine of original sin and total depravity, which teaches that, due to the sin of Adam, all humankind has become wholly corrupt in body, mind, will, and spirit (“Regeneration Precedes Faith” by R.C. Sproul). The difference, however, is that Calvinists believe that due to this totally depraved state, God’s grace must irresistibly cause people to respond to him, whereas Arminians believe that God’s grace only enables a response. The debate is in fact a matter of man’s free will. Does God regenerate man against his free will, or does he allow man to choose to believe in order to be regenerated? The answer to this question has crucial implications for certain elements of the Christian faith, such as the role of baptism in God’s plan of salvation. If God regenerates man against his free will in order to have faith, baptism ends up being a mere symbol of faith and is not essential for salvation. However, if man must have faith in order to be regenerated, baptism then serves as a work of faith, and thus, is essential for salvation as the occasion for regeneration. The aim of this paper is to argue that baptism is indeed an essential component of God’s plan of salvation. It is the moment in which a penitent sinner is regenerated through faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit serves as the facilitator of regeneration by bringing about faith through the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, the order of salvation is as follows: faith -> baptism -> regeneration.
Before proceeding, we must lay the groundwork, as no one can truly make an argument without the influence of certain basic principles and presuppositions. First, the veracity of God’s word must be taken as a crucial underlying principle. The word of God never contradicts itself. If one truth is mentioned in one part of the Scriptures, and a different truth in another part of the Scriptures, we are not to consider these truths to be opposing in any way, as God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). What we must keep in mind, rather, is that everything in the word of God is truth. The psalmist says, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psa. 119:160). If one principle in God’s word could contradict another, we would have to conclude that nothing in his word is true, or that truth is subjective, which flies in the face of passages such as John 17:17 where Christ says, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Second, it is presupposed that when the Scriptures speak of baptism in relation to regeneration, the type being referenced is that of water. Peter explains that the flood that saved the eight souls in the days of Noah is a figure of baptism that involves salvation through water (1 Pet. 3:18–21):
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Also, the Hebrew writer tells us that Christians have had their bodies washed with “pure water” (Heb. 10:22):
And having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Additionally, we know that the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized in water (Acts 8:36–38):
Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.
Lastly, the arguments presented in this paper are the general beliefs shared among the members of the church of Christ. Anyone who seeks to follow Christ’s doctrine should not identify with any label that is not of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10–13). Therefore, as members of the church, we do not subscribe to the general theologies of Calvinism or Arminianism. However, as it relates to the debate on regeneration and faith, the church of Christ cannot deny that her belief aligns with the Arminian thought that regeneration comes necessarily after faith.
Paliggenesia – Regeneration
The Greek word paliggenesia, which is directly translated as “regeneration,” is defined as new birth, born again, or rebirth (Strong’s Concordance 3824). It occurs only twice in the New Testament. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus uses the term in speaking with his disciples about the coming of the kingdom of God. That is, he foretells the establishment of the church and the ministry of the apostles during the Christian age. In Titus 3:5, Paul uses “regeneration” when he talks about humankind receiving salvation by God’s grace. Our focus will be this second use of the term. Along with regeneration, Paul mentions “renewal” in Titus 3:5. This word comes from the Greek term anakainósis and is defined as renewal or change of heart and life (Strong’s Concordance 342). Anakainósis is also used in Romans 12:2, Hebrews 6:6, and Colossians 3:10. Despite being conceptually related to paliggenesia, anakainósis differs in that it refers to a process of complete change towards renovation (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Later we will see that this word is not normally used within the context of salvation, but rather, appears in passages that speak of the change occurring in one’s lifestyle after the initial point of salvation.
Although the term “regeneration” scarcely appears in the Scriptures, the idea of new birth shows up in several New Testament passages. The following list enumerates different words and phrases that express this concept:
- renew (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23 (“ananeoó”); Colossians 3:10; Hebrews 6:6)
- new man (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10)
- newness of life (Romans 6:4)
- born again/or God (John 3:3,6; John 1:13; 1 Peter 1:23–25; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 5:1,18)
- brought forth (James 1:18)
- begotten again (1 Peter 1:3; 1 John 5:1)
- new creation/creature/created (Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:10; Ephesians 4:24b)
- made alive/quickened/give life (John 6:63; Ephesians 2:1; Romans 6:11; Romans 8:11; 2 Corinthians 3:6)
Upon analyzing the uses of these phrases, the Scriptures clearly reveal that salvation is a process that involves regeneration, in which the Holy Spirit acts as the facilitator, and baptism serves as the occasion.
Regeneration and Salvation
According to the epistles of Peter, James, Paul, and John, regeneration is related to salvation. Paul, in particular, states the following in Ephesians 2:4–5:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).
In these verses, he shows that being “made alive with Christ” is part of the salvation process. He also reveals that regeneration is something that God performs; it is a gift from above (Jas. 1:17). It is according to his grace and mercy and not based on works that we have done (1 Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:10). Paul had to explain to the Galatians that regeneration was a spiritual matter, independent of the Mosaic Law; that is, becoming a new creation is not based on the flesh (Gal. 6:13–15). We have the opportunity of regeneration because God desires that his creation be righteous and holy (John 1:13; Jas. 1:18; Eph. 4:24b). He accomplished his will through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:3; Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10). He continues to regenerate his creation through the preaching of his word (Jas. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23–25). However, to be children of God, we must have faithful obedience to Jesus Christ (John 1:12–13; 1 John 5:1–5; Eph. 2:1–10). Once we have been born again, we are able to please God in our good works and righteous living. We have the living hope of receiving an inheritance, which is reserved for us in heaven if we continue to be faithful to the Lord (1 Pet. 1:4). A careful reading of the regeneration passages shows that the word of God and faith are what gives us access to rebirth. God’s word and faith are closely linked to the work of the Holy Spirit and the act of baptism.
Holy Spirit: The Facilitator of Regeneration
The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit is the facilitator of regeneration. That is, he sets regeneration in motion by working through the word of God. Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John that the Spirit gives life; however, he does not work independently of God’s word. Jesus says in John 6:63, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Later, he says that the Spirit of truth would guide the disciples into all truth and that he would not speak on his own authority, but he would speak whatever he heard from Christ (John 16:13–15). Notice that he refers to the Spirit as the “Spirit of truth.” In John 17:17, Jesus says that God’s word is truth. Therefore, we can conclude that the work of the Spirit is always through the word, which is why Paul, in his second letter to the church at Corinth, says that God made the apostles ministers of the new covenant that is of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:3–6). Furthermore, Peter tells the saints that they had obeyed the truth through the Spirit and had been born again of incorruptible seed through the word of God. Here he refers to the preaching of the gospel (1 Pet. 1:22–25).
An example of the Spirit working through the word to bring about regeneration is seen in Acts 8:26–39 where Luke writes about a eunuch who was returning to Ethiopia after having worshiped in Jerusalem. The evangelist Philip was instructed by an angel of the Lord to leave Jerusalem and head to Gaza. When he arrived, he encountered the eunuch who was in his chariot reading a passage from Isaiah about the Messiah. In that moment, the Spirit told Philip to approach the chariot, and when he did so, he heard what the eunuch was reading, and he asked him if he understood. The eunuch responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He invited Philip to sit with him, and Philip began to preach the gospel to him, which resulted in the eunuch’s obeying the gospel and being baptized. We observe two facts in this account. First, Philip was willing to do as the Spirit directed because he was convicted by the words of Christ to preach the gospel to all nations (Read Matthew 28:18–20). Second, the Spirit facilitated the salvation process in that he initiated the preaching of the gospel through the evangelist (Read John 14:25–26). As the word was preached, the Spirit convicted the eunuch’s heart, leading him to confess Jesus as the Son of God and to request baptism (Acts 8:36–38; Read Acts 2:36). The Spirit did not save the eunuch. He did not perform any direct miraculous work to regenerate him. He facilitated the preaching of the gospel and pricked the eunuch’s heart through the word. It is in this way that the Spirit gave him life. He never works independently of God’s word and authority. A sinner must hear the gospel for the Spirit to bring about rebirth and salvation. The question that remains then is when does regeneration occur. Is a sinner regenerated at the moment of belief in Christ? Is it his mental process of acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God that brings about his rebirth, or is there another moment that God uses to regenerate him? It is argued here that regeneration does not occur at the moment of mental acknowledgment, but rather when the sinner submits to baptism—the occasion in which God gives life.
Baptism: The Occasion of Regeneration
Romans 6:3–11 and John 3:3–8 are the two main texts in which the concept of regeneration is connected with baptism. The facts of baptism presented in these passages reveal that this act is the occasion in which God regenerates those who have believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and confessed Jesus as the Son of God. In chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains why a Christian should not continue in sin despite receiving an abundance of grace through the death of Christ. He says in verses 3–5:
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection.
Notice that he employs the phrase “newness of life,” which indicates that he is addressing regeneration. He shows in verses 3–5 that baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That is, those who submit to this act experiences a death, burial, and resurrection as Christ did, and thus, are united with him. Being pulled out of the water represents being raised from the dead to walk in newness of life, that is, to live as regenerated people. Paul supports his point further by showing that in baptism we crucify the old self, and we are freed from sin. We die to sin in order to become alive to God in Jesus Christ (vv. 6–11):
Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul shows in this passage not only that baptism comes before rebirth, but also that it is the moment at which we are regenerated. Baptism is a symbol of Christ’s death, but it is not a symbol of our faith. It is in fact a work that manifests our faith in Jesus Christ.
In John 3, we read about a Pharisee named Nicodemus who goes to Jesus to know what he must do to enter the kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). First, we can take from this single verse that the passage is concerned with regeneration by the use of the phrase “born again.” Also, we observe that regeneration is a requirement for entering the kingdom of God. When Nicodemus hears these words, he is perplexed because he does not understand how a man can enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born again. Jesus therefore clarifies his statement (vv. 5–8):
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Notice here that Jesus tells him that being born again means being born of water and the Spirit. This verse is a perfect parallel to Paul’s words in Titus 3:5 in which he explains that God saves us in baptism: “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus shows that we are born again when we submit to the act of baptism, as it is the only occasion in which rebirth can occur. The phrase “born of the Spirit” is a reference to our previous comment concerning the Spirit as the facilitator of regeneration by means of God’s word. The gospel brings about obedience to the word in those who have been convicted by the Spirit. That is why Peter says in Acts 15:9 that Cornelius and his household had their hearts purified by faith. When they heard the preaching of the gospel, they obeyed the command to be baptized.
When we begin to see baptism as the occasion in which God regenerates a sinner, we understand that baptism does not save by itself. That is, there is no such thing as baptismal regeneration. Peter does indeed say that baptism saves; however, he explains how that is. He says, “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is an appeal or a calling out to God so that he cleanses your heart. Observe how the words of Peter and the Hebrew writer are perfectly harmonized on this point:
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb. 10:22)
Anakainósis – Renewal
As previously discussed, Paul also mentions in Titus 3:5 the term “renewal,” which comes from the Greek word anakainósis. Although it is similar to paliggenesia, the context in which it is used uncovers a different meaning. Anakainósis can be defined as a process of complete change towards renovation, which includes the renewal of one’s heart and life. Notice that it is with this word that Paul connects the Holy Spirit in Titus 3:5:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and [renewing of the Holy Spirit].
Regeneration occurs in the waters of baptism, but the process of renewal is by the Holy Spirit. This process is made clear in passages such as Romans 12:2, Hebrews 6:6, Colossians 3:10, and Ephesians 4:24.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom. 12:2)
If they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. (Heb. 6:6)
And have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him. (Col. 3:10)
And that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:23–24)
These passages do not refer to the initial point of regeneration and salvation. They discuss the life of a person who has already become a child of God through obedience to the gospel. It is at this point that the Holy Spirit begins to work through the word to change the heart and lifestyle of a Christian. Putting off the old man and putting on the new man is a behavioral change. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks about how they used to be (vv. 18-19):
Having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
But then he says that they were changed by the truth that is in Christ, renewing the spirit of their mind and putting on the new man “which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23–24). This change is required; however, it is possible only after being regenerated in baptism through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Scriptures teach that faith precedes regeneration and is a necessary component for rebirth to occur. Although he gives life, the Spirit does not work by his own authority. He facilitates regeneration by working through the word of God. It is by the power of the Spirit that the gospel is preached in order to produce faith in the sinner. The preaching of the word allows the Spirit to convict those who hear the gospel so that they respond in obedient faith. They must obey the command of baptism because this work of faith marks the point at which God regenerates believers and make them his children. Paul makes it clear in Galatians 3:26–27: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Here we see that faith and baptism are connected. People become children of God—that is, they are regenerated—by having faith in Christ, which is realized in baptism. Clearly, faith leads to baptism, which in turn, results in regeneration.