|That which is born of the flesh is flesh.| -- John iii.6.
Before we examine the work of the Holy Spirit in this important matter, we must first define the use of words.
The word |regeneration| isused in a limited sense, and in a more extended sense.
It is used in the limited sense when it denotes exclusively God's act of quickening, which is the first divine act whereby God translates us from death into life, from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son. In this sense regeneration is the starting-point. God comes to one born in iniquity and dead in trespasses and sins, and plants the principle of a new spiritual life in his soul. Hence he is born again.
But this is not the interpretation of the Confession of Faith, for article 24 reads: |We believe that this true faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.| Here the word |regeneration,| used in its wider sense, denotes the entire change by grace effected in our persons, ending in our dying to sin in death and our being born for heaven. While formerly this was the usual sense of the word, we are accustomed now to the limited sense, which we therefore adopt in this discussion.
Respecting the difference between the two -- formerly the work of grace was generally represented as the soul consciously observed it; while now the work itself is described apart from the consciousness.
Of course, a child knows nothing of the genesis of his own existence, nor of the first period of his life, from his own observation. If he were to tell his history from his own recollections, he would begin with the time that he sat in his high chair, and proceed until as a man he went out into the world. But, being informed by others of his antecedents, he goes back of his recollections and speaks of his parents, family, time, and place of birth, how he grew up, etc. Hence there is quite a difference between the two accounts.
The same difference we observe in the subject before us. Formerly it was customary, after the manner of Romish scholastics, to describe one's experience from one's own recollections. Being personally ignorant of the implanting of the new life, and remembering only the great spiritual disturbance, which led one to faith and repentance, it was natural to date the beginning of the work of grace not from regeneration, but from the conviction of sin and faith, thence proceeding to sanctification, and so on.
But this subjective representation, more or less incomplete, can not satisfy us now. It was to be expected that the supporters of |free will| would abuse it, by inferring that the origin and first activities of the work of salvation spring from man himself. A sinner, hearing the Word, is deeply impressed; persuaded by its threats and promises, he repents, arises, and accepts the Savior. Hence there is nothing more than a mere moral persuasion, obscuring the glorious origin of the new life. To resist this repulsive deforming of the truth, Maccovius, already in the days of the Synod of Dort, abandoned this more or less critical method to make regeneration the starting-point. He followed this order: |Knowledge of sin, redemption in Christ, regeneration, and only then faith.| And this was consistent with the development of the Reformed doctrine. For as soon as the subjective method was abandoned, it became necessary in answer to the question, |What has God wrought in the soul?| to return to the first implanting of life. And then it became evident that God did not begin by leading the sinner to repentance, for repentance must be preceded by conviction of sin; nor by bringing him under the hearing of the word, for this requires an opened ear. Hence the first conscious and comparatively cooperative act of man is always preceded by the original act of God, planting in him the first principle of a new life, under which act man is wholly passive and unconscious.
This led to the distinction of the first and second grace. The former denoted God's work in the sinner, creating a new life without his knowledge; while the latter denoted the work wrought in regenerate man with his full knowledge and consent.
The first grace was naturally called regeneration. And yet there was no perfect unanimity in this respect. Some Scottish theologians put it in this way: |God began the work of grace with the implanting of the faith-faculty (fides potentialis), followed by the new grace of the faith-exercise (fides actualis), and of the faith power (fides habitualis). Yet it is only an apparent difference. Whether I call the first activity of grace, the implanting of the |faith-faculty,| or the |new principle of life,| in both instances it means that the work of grace does not begin with faith or with repentance or contrition, but that these are preceded by God's act of giving power to the powerless, hearing to the deaf, and life to the dead.
For a correct idea of the entire work of grace in its different phases let us notice the following successive stages or milestones:
1. The implanting of the new life principle, commonly called regeneration inthe limited sense, or the implanting of the faith-faculty. This divine act is wrought in man at different ages; when, no one can tell. We know from the instance of John the Baptist that it can be wrought even in the mother's womb. And the salvation of deceased infants constrains us, with Voetius and all profound theologians, to believe that this original act may occur very early in life.
2. The keeping of the implanted principle of life, while the sinner still continues in sin, so far as his consciousness is concerned. Persons who received the life-principle early in life are no more dead, but live. Dying before actual conversion, they are not lost, but saved. In early life they often manifest holy inclinations; sometimes truly marvelous. However, they have no conscious faith, nor knowledge of the treasure possessed. The new life is present, but dormant; kept not by the recipient, but by the Giver -- like seed-grain in the ground in winter; like the spark glowing under the ashes, but not kindling the wood; like a subterranean stream coming at last to the surface.
3. The call by the Word and the Spirit, internal and external. Even this is a divine act, commonly performed through the service of the Church. It addresses itself not to the deaf but to the hearing, not to the dead but to the living, altho still slumbering. It proceeds from the Word and the Spirit, because not only the faith-faculty, but faith itself -- i.e., the power and exercise of the faculty -- are gifts of grace. The faith-faculty can not exercise faith of itself. It avails us no more than the faculty of breathing when air and the power to breathe are withheld. Hence the preaching of the Word and the inward working of the Holy Spirit are divine, correspondent operations. Under the preaching of the Word the Spirit energizes the faith-faculty, and thus the call becomes effectual, for the sleeper arises.
4. This call of God produces conviction of sin and justification, two acts of the same exercise of faith. In this, God's work may be represented again either subjectively or objectively. Subjectively, it seems to the saint that conviction of sin and heart-brokenness came first, and that then he obtained the sense of being justified by faith. Objectively, this is not so. The realization of his lost condition was already a bold act of faith. And by every subsequent act of faith he becomes more deeply convinced of his misery and receives more abundantly from the fulness which is in Christ, his Surety.
Concerning the question, whether conviction of sin must not precede faith, there need be no difference. Both representations amount to the same thing. When a man can say for the first time in his life |I believe,| he is at the same moment completely lost and completely saved, being justified in his Lord.
5. This exercise of faith results in conversion; at this stage in the way of grace the child of God becomes clearly conscious of the implanted life. When a man says and feels |I believe,| and does not recall it, but God confirms it, faith is at once followed by conversion. The implanting of the new life precedes the first act of faith, but conversion follows it. Conversion does not become a fact so long as the sinner only sees his lost condition, but when he acts upon this principle; for then the old man begins to die and the new man begins to rise, and these are the two parts of all real conversion.
In principle man is converted but once, viz., the moment of yielding himself to Immanuel. After that he converts himself daily, i.e., as often as he discovers conflict between his will and that of the Holy Spirit. And even this is not man's work, but the work of God in him. |Turn Thou me, O Lord, and I shall be turned.| There is this difference, however, that in regeneration and faith's first exercise he was passive, while in conversion grace enabled him to be active. One is converted and one converts himself; the one is incomplete without the other.
6. Hence conversion merges itself in sanctification. This is also a divine act, and not human; not a growing toward Christ, but an absorbing of His life through the roots of faith. In children of twelve or thirteen deceased soon after conversion, sanctification does not appear. Yet they partake of it just as much as adults. Sanctification has a twofold meaning: first, sanctification which as Christ's finished work is given and imputed to all the elect; and second, sanctification which from Christ is gradually wrought in the converted and manifested according to times and circumstances. These are not two sanctifications, but one; just as we speak sometimes of the rain that accumulates in the clouds above and then comes down in drops on the thirsty fields below.
7. Sanctification is finished and closed in the complete redemption at the time of death. In the severing of body and soul divine grace completes the dying to sin. Hence in death a work of grace is performed which imparts to the work of regeneration its fullest unfolding. If until then, considering ourselves out of Christ, we are still lost in ourselves and lying in the midst of death, the article of death ends all this. Then faith is turned into sight, sin's excitement is disarmed, and we are forever beyond its reach.
Lastly, our glorification in the last day, when the inward bliss will be manifest in outward glory, and by an act of omnipotent grace the soul will be reunited with its glorified body, and be placed in such heavenly glory as becomes the state of perfect felicity.
This shows how the operations of grace are riveted together as the links of a chain. The work of grace must begin with quickening the dead. Once implanted, the still slumbering life must be awakened by the call. Thus awakened, man finds himself in a new life, i.e., he knows himself justified. Being justified, he lets the new life result in conversion. Conversion flows into sanctification. Sanctification receives its keystone through the severing of sin in death. And in the last day, glorification completes the work of divine grace in our entire person.
Hence it follows that that which succeeds is contained in that which precedes. A regenerate deceased infant died to sin in death just as surely as the man with hoary head and fourscore years. There can be no first without including the second and last. Hence the entire work of grace might be represented as one birth for heaven, one continued regeneration to be completed in the last day.
Wherefore there may be persons ignorant of these stages, which are as indispensable as milestones to the surveyor; but they may never be made to oppress the souls of the simple. He who breathes deeply unconscious of his lungs is often the healthiest.
Touching the question whether the Scripture gives reference to this arrangement over the old, we refer to the word of Jesus: |Except a man be born of water and the Spirit he can not see the kingdom of God| (John iii.5); from which we infer that Jesus dates every operation of grace from regeneration. First life, and then the activity of life.