Man’s will does not move the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God moves (frees) the will of men (John 3:8). Because of our sinful unwillingness and hostility to Jesus and all things righteous, being born again is necessary for any person to savingly believe on Christ.
Regeneration is Necessary to Believe
In the last sermon he ever preached, August 19, 1688, John Bunyan said, “Believing is the consequence of the new birth.” I would point out here, like Bunyan would, that this is casually rather than temporally. And the point is what is “in man” (cf. John 2:24-25) is so corrupted and evil that in and ourselves we will not savingly believe on Christ. Believing savingly on Jesus then, is the consequence, rather than the cause, of the new birth.
Throughout Church History, not everyone has agreed with this assessment. But take note of Jesus’s words in John 6:63 – “It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh is no help at all” (emphasis mine). To further substantiate Bunyan’s claim of regeneration preceding faith, we turn to the Apostle John’s first epistle. To build our case, we will examine 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, and finally, 5:1. Take note of the repeated phrase in each verse in italics.
- “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 John 2:29, emphasis mine)
- “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9, emphasis mine)
- “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7, emphasis mine)
- “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” (1 John 5:1, emphasis mine)
Fruits of the New Birth
The Apostle John writes to reveal to his readers the fruits of being born again. First, he shows that practicing righteousness is a fruit of being born again (1 John 2:29). Next, he shows that not making a practice of sinning is a fruit of being born again (1 John 3:9). Thirdly, he shows that love of the brethren is a fruit of those who have been born again.
Now, we will stop there for a moment. Because what I have just written is not controversial to any conservative Bible believing Christian. No one is making grammatical arguments for why John might really mean that practicing righteousness precedes regeneration. In other words, a holy life, fighting sin, and loving God and the brethren are not things one does in order to be born again but because he has been born of God.
Regeneration is not the effect of these acts but the cause. As Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) wrote, “You must first have Union with him, before you can bring forth Fruit to God; you must act from Life, and not for Life.” The acts John mentions are not for life, but flow from new life.
1 John 5:1
But when we get to 1 John 5:1, things get a little controversial. This is not because John has changed his style. He uses the same construction in 1 John 5 that he has used in chapters 2, 3, and 4. The problem for some is that now he has said everyone who believes – the same word for “belief” in John 3:16 – has been born of God.
No, John is not writing a systematic theology on the Ordo Salutis. But he is showing that one telltale sign of regeneration is that we savingly believe on Christ. It is important to John to show his readers that faith is another fruit of being born of God rather than the other way around.