|Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.| -- 1 Peter i.23.
There is a possible objection to what has been said above concerning regeneration. It is evident that God's Word, and therefore our symbols of faith, offers a modified representation of these things which, superficially considered, seems to condemn our representation. This representation, which does not consider children, but adults, may thus be stated: Among a circle of unconverted persons God causes the Word to be preached by His ambassadors of the cross. By this preaching the call reaches them. If there are elect persons among them, for whom it is now the time of love, God accompanies the outward call with the inward. Consequently they turn from their ways of sin to the way of life. And so they are begotten of God.
Thus St. Peter presents the matter, saying: |Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible; by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.| (1 Pet. i.23) And also St. Paul when he declares, |That faith is by the hearing, and the hearing by the Word of God| (Rom. x.17). It fully harmonizes with what St. Paul writes concerning holy Baptism, which he calls the washing of |regeneration,| for in those days Jew and Gentile were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, immediately after their conversion, by the preaching of the apostles.
For this reason our fathers confessed in their Confession (article 24): |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.| And likewise teaches the Heidelberg Catechism (see question 65): |Such faith proceedeth from the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.| And also the canons of Dort, Third and Fourth Heads of doctrine, section 17: |As the almighty operation of God, whereby He prolongs and supports this our natural life, does not exclude, but requires the use of means by which God of His infinite mercy and goodness hath chosen to exert His influence; so also the before-mentioned supernatural operation of God, by which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the Gospel; which the most wise God hath ordained to be the seed of regeneration and food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and the abasement of all pride, and in the mean time, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the Gospel in the exercise of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline; so even to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the Church, by separating what He of His good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is His work advanced.|
And now, in order to eradicate every suspicion that we contend against this representation, we declare openly and definitely that we give it our most hearty assent.
We only beg it be considered that in this presentation both Scripture and the symbols of faith always point to the mysterious background, to a wonderful work of God hiding back of it, to an inscrutable mystery without which all this comes to naught.
The canons of Dort describe this mysterious, inscrutable, and wonderful background most elaborately and most beautifully in article 12, Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine: |And this is the regeneration so highly celebrated in Scripture and denominated a new creation; a resurrection from the dead, a making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the Gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not; to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose hearts God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore, also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.| And also in article 11: |But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the Gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, He pervades the inmost recesses of the man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, tho heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.| The Heidelberg Catechism points to this, in question 8: |Except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.| And also the Confession, article 22: |We believe that to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits.|
This mysterious background, which our fathers at Dort called |His pervading the inmost recesses of man by the efficacy of the, regenerating Spirit,| is evidently the same as what we call |the divine operation which penetrates the center of our being to implant the germ of the new life.|
And what is this mysterious working? According to the universal testimony based upon Scripture, it is an operation of the Holy Spirit in man's innermost being.
Hence the question, whether this regenerating act precedes, accompanies, or follows the hearing of the Word. And this question should be well understood, for it involves the solution of this seeming disagreement.
We answer: The Holy Spirit may perform this work in the sinner's heart before, during, or after the preaching of the Word. The inward call may be associated with the outward call, or it may follow it. But that which precedes the inward call, viz., the opening of the deaf ear, so that it may be heard, is not dependent upon the preaching of the Word; and therefore may precede the preaching.
Correct discrimination in this respect is of greatest importance.
If I designate the whole conscious work of grace from conversion until death, |regeneration,| without any regard to its mysterious background, then I may and must say with the Confession (article 24): |That this faith, being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word, and the operation of the Holy Spirit, doth regenerate him and make him a new man.|
But if I distinguish in this work of grace, according to the claims of the sacraments, between the origin of the new life, for which God gave us the sacrament of holy Baptism, and its support, for which God gave the sacrament of the holy Supper, then regeneration ceases immediately after man is born again, and that which follows is called |sanctification.|
And discriminating again between that which the Holy Spirit wrought in us consciously and unconsciously, then regeneration designates that which was wrought in us unconsciously, while conversion is the term we apply to the awakening of this implanted life in our consciousness.
Hence God's work of grace runs through these three successive stages:
1st. Regeneration in its first stage, when the Lord plants the new life in the dead heart.
2d. Regeneration in its second stage, when the new-born man comes to conversion.
3d. Regeneration in its third stage, when conversion merges into sanctification.
In each of these three God performs a wonderful and mysterious work in man's inward being. From God proceed quickening, conversion, and sanctification, and in each God is the Worker: only with this difference, that in the quickening He works alone, finding and leaving man inactive; that in conversion He finds us inactive, but makes us active; that in sanctification He works in us in such a manner that we work ourselves through Him.
Describing it still more closely, we say that in the first stage of regeneration, that of quickening, God works without means; in the second stage, that of conversion, He employs means, viz., the preaching of the Word; and in the third stage, that of sanctification, He uses means in addition to ourselves, whom He uses as means.
Condensing the foregoing, there is one great act of God which re-creates the corrupt sinner into a new man, viz., the comprehensive act of regeneration, which contains three parts -- quickening, conversion, and sanctification.
For the ministry of the Word it is preferable to consider only the last two, conversion and sanctification, since this is the appointed means to effect them. The first, regeneration, is preferably a subject of private meditation, since in it man is passive and God only active; and also because in it the majesty of the divine operation is most apparent.
Hence there is no conflict or opposition. Referring, according to the Confession, article 17, only to conversion and sanctification, the unstopping of the deaf ear as preceding the hearing of the Word is not denied. And penetrating into the work which antedates conversion, |In which God works in us without our aid| (article 12 of the canons of Dort), it is not denied, but confessed, that conversion and sanctification follow the unstopping of the deaf ear, and that, in the proper sense, regeneration is completed only at the death of the sinner.
Do not suppose that we make these two to conflict. In writing a biography of Napoleon it would be sufficient simply to mention his birth, but one might also mention, more in particular, the things that took place before his birth. Just so in this respect: I may refer either to the two parts of regeneration, conversion and sanctification, or I may include also that which precedes conversion, and speak also of the quickening. This implies no antagonism, but a mere difference of exactness. It is more exhaustive, with reference to regeneration, to speak of three stages -- quickening, conversion, and sanctification; altho it is customary and more practical to speak only of the last two.
Our purpose, however, calls for greater completeness. The aim of this work is not to preach the Word, but to uncover the foundations of the truth, so as to stop the building of crooked walls upon the foundation-stone, after the manner of Ethicals, Rationalists, and Supernaturalists.
Exhaustiveness in treatment requires to ask not only, |How and what does the quickened sinner hear?| but also, |Who has given him hearing ears? |
And this is all the more to be insisted upon because our children must not be ignored in this respect. At Dort, in 1618, our children were taken into account, and we may not deny ourselves this pleasant obligation.
And herein lies a real danger. For to speak of the little ones without considering the first stage of regeneration -- i.e., the quickening -- causes confusion and perplexity from which there is no escape.
Salvation depends upon faith, and faith upon the hearing of the Word; hence our deceased infants must be lost, for they can not hear the Word. To escape this fearful thought it is often said that the children are saved by virtue of the parents' faith -- a misunderstanding which greatly confused our entire conception of Baptism, and made our baptismal form very perplexing. But as soon as we distinguish quickening, as a stage of regeneration, from conversion and sanctification, the light enters. For since quickening is an unaided act of God in us, independent of the Word, and frequently separated from the second stage, conversion, by an interval of many days, there is nothing to prevent God from performing His work even in the babe, and the apparent conflict dissolves into beautiful harmony. Moreover, as soon as I regard my still unconverted children as not yet regenerate, their training must run in the direction of a questionable Methodism. What is the use of the call so long as I suppose and know: |This ear can not yet hear|?
Touching the question concerning. |faith,| we are fully prepared to apply the same distinction to this matter. You have only to discriminate between the organ or the faculty of faith, the Power to exercise faith, and the working of faith. The first of these three, viz., the faculty of faith, is implanted in the first stage of regeneration -- i.e., in quickening; the power of faith is imparted in the second stage of regeneration -- i.e., in conversion; and the working of faith is wrought in the third stage -- i.e., in sanctification. Hence if faith is wrought only by the hearing of the Word, the preaching of the Word does not create the faculty of faith.
Look only at what our fathers confessed at Dort: |He who works in man both to will and to do produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also| (Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine, article 14).
Or to express it still more strongly: when the Word is preached, I know it; and when I hear it and believe it, I know whence this working of faith comes. But the implanting of the faith-faculty is an entirely different thing; for of this the Lord Jesus says: |Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh; and whither it goeth|; and as the wind, so is also the regeneration of man.