Regeneration is the act of God by which a spiritually dead person becomes spiritually alive. Regeneration is the “born again” experience mentioned in John 3:3. The question is when regeneration occurs. Is regeneration a result of salvation or does regeneration result in salvation?
At first glance, this issue might seem to be inconsequential. But it is actually one of the key disagreements in the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. For a Calvinist, if God does not first regenerate people before they trust in Christ as Savior, that faith is something people produced on their own, making salvation dependent on them instead of on God. For an Arminian, if God must regenerate people in order for them to believe, there is no genuine free will, and the call to believe is pointless.
For the Calvinist, Ephesians 2:1 is key: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” Without Christ, people are spiritually dead. Dead people cannot do anything. A spiritually dead person can no more do anything to remedy that situation than a physically dead person can climb out of a grave. Therefore, God must regenerate people, making them spiritually alive, before they can trust in Christ as Savior (John 3:8).
For the Arminian, all of the biblical calls to believe in Christ as Savior are key (e.g., John 3:16; Acts 16:31). If people are unable to believe without God first regenerating them, the biblical calls to believe are pointless. God does not command people to do what they are incapable of doing. Calling people to believe in Christ when they are incapable of doing so on their own, and then judging them for their lack of faith, would be unfair and unjust. Further, if God must regenerate people in order for them to have faith, essentially “installing” faith in people, God would essentially be forcing people into salvation.
So, does regeneration come before faith? John 6:44 says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Second Corinthians 4:4 declares, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” It is undeniable that God must do something to enable people to believe. At the very least, God must draw people to Christ and open their eyes.
The question still remains, however, must God regenerate people, i.e., save them, before they can believe? Is it possible that God could enable people to believe without regenerating them? Could God draw people, unblind their eyes, soften their hearts, and open their minds, making it possible for them to believe, without actually regenerating them? For the Arminian, the answer is yes, and this “spiritual awakening” is known as prevenient grace.
Again, for the Calvinist, Ephesians 2:1 is the deciding factor. It is impossible to draw, unblind, soften, or open the minds of dead people. God must make people alive, regenerate them, before they can believe. Arminians believe that Calvinists are taking the analogy between physically dead people and spiritually dead people too far. They claim that being spiritually dead only means that people cannot come to Christ on their own and that being spiritually dead is not 100 percent analogous to being a corpse.
This issue has been fiercely debated for hundreds of years. This article is not going to settle it. It is absolutely biblically clear that God must do a work in people before they can believe. The extent of that work is debatable. Calvinists perhaps overestimate what God must do before people can believe. Arminians perhaps underestimate what it means to be spiritually dead.
The key point is that God must do a miraculous work in people’s lives before they are able to believe in Christ unto salvation. As a result, all the glory belongs to God (Romans 11:36). On this, Calvinists and Arminians agree, even if they don’t think they do.