The Relationship Between Regeneration and Conversion

If you haven’t already, please read this series’ introduction.

As for regeneration and conversion, I’ll talk about these distinct concepts together because, as I said before, they are two sides of the same coin. Regeneration is an act of God imparting life to a dead sinner. Conversion, our willing response to trust Christ for salvation and repent of our sins, is its byproduct.

We agree on the nature and cause of regeneration. We also agree that conversion must be a result of regeneration and not a cause. We disagree, however, that the Bible teaches conversion to be an inevitable outcome of regeneration. You claim that multitudes of people are born again by the Spirit, yet they remain ignorant and unrepentant unbelievers.

I’ve quoted from John 1 a few times already, but let me cite this passage again. John writes:

He [that is, Jesus] came to his own [the Jews], and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)

Let me start with an illustration. Imagine two parallel lines.

The first line represents God’s sovereignty. It encompasses election, predestination, regeneration, and any other divine act that leads to eternal life. We don’t see these works of God, not directly. Just as Jesus said of the Spirit, “You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (Jn 3:8). This line represents what God is doing behind the scenes.

The second line represents human responsibility. It includes belief, faith, conversion, repentance, obedience, perseverance, and so on.

Both you and I are well aware that many Christians attempt to fade the first line of God’s sovereignty into obscurity. They say, “Look, John says that we must receive or believe in Christ to become children of God.” They’re right. That is what John said, but there is also another verse to consider.

Unfortunately, others will tip the scale in the other direction. The proponent of hyper-grace will diminish the role of human responsibility. They say, “We are born of God, not by human will.” They’re also right. But once again, there is another verse to consider.

I believe this passage makes five important points either explicitly or implicitly.

1) Those who believe are born of God.

Apart from the sovereign work of the Spirit, there is nothing to draw the sinner to Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). Paul says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Ro 8:7).

John says here that believers are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:13). Their faith begins with God. Of course, we agree on this point. When someone comes to faith in Christ, it is the result of God’s sovereign work of regeneration.

2) Those who don’t believe are not born of God.

John says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him—” (Jn 1:11-12). By making this comparison, John implies that unbelievers do not believe because they are not born of God.

In John 10, Jesus was slightly more direct when he said, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (Jn 10:26). How could anyone reject their Lord if they have heard his voice? Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me. I give them eternal life” (Jn 10:27-28).

I’ve asked this question before: Where does the Bible teach the existence of born-again, regenerated unbelievers? Just because we can point to verses that teach God’s sovereignty in salvation doesn’t negate the second line representing human responsibility. John 1:13 doesn’t nullify John 1:12. Philippians 2:13 doesn’t nullify Philippians 2:12. Romans 9 doesn’t negate Romans 10.

3) Those who believe become children of God.

John says, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). I believe the KJV uses the word “power” rather than “right.”

This verse teaches what we typically refer to as the doctrine of adoption. In regeneration, God gives us spiritual life. In justification, he declares us righteous. In adoption, he makes us members of his family.

According to Daniel Parker, God’s children have always been his children. While there may be some truth to that, John claims that we officially become his children at a particular moment in time. Paul says that we are “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” until God mercifully makes us “alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:3; 5).

The pertinent question is, when does it happen? When do we become his children? According to Paul, it occurs when we are born again. John says the same but adds belief in Christ. They are two sides of the same coin. On the invisible side, God’s side of the coin, he regenerates us. On the visible side, the sinner’s side, we come to Christ. We receive him. We believe in him.

4) Those who do not believe do not become children of God.

Like my second point, this one is implied. If sinners become children of God when they believe, then those who don’t believe, those who “[do] not receive him,” must not become God’s children (Jn 1:11).

To be clear, conversion flows out of regeneration, not the other way around. We believe because we are born of God; because we believe, we become children of God.

5) Those who are born of God believe.

Time and time again, we see this truth in Scripture. I often use a passage in Ezekiel 36 as my example because I’ve so often heard it used by Primitive Baptist elders to prove that regeneration is a work of God. It does prove that, of course. But similar to the verses in John 1, they typically ignore the second half.

Through Ezekiel, God said:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

The KJV says, “I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.”

Anyone can see that God’s work of regeneration produces a pragmatic change in sinners. John says that the born again will believe and receive Christ. Paul says that we stop walking “following the course of this world [and] the prince of the power of the air,” and begin walking in “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:2; 10).

As for Ezekiel, his prophecy teaches that those whom God gives a new heart will “walk in [his] statutes and be careful to obey [his] rules” (Eze 36:27). He does not say that God makes us able or equips us; he says that God causes us to walk in this new way.

That is why I said that both lines (God’s sovereignty and human responsibility) must run parallel. One cannot be drawn without the other. God’s sovereignty is the cause while human action is the effect. The Bible offers no examples or teachings to show that sinners can be born again without also being drawn to Christ in faith.

Let me show you through a series of passages. I’ll keep my commentary to a minimum.

Ephesians 1 says, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. … making known to us the mystery of his will” (Eph 1:4; 9). Paul goes on to say that the elect in Ephesus had “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed” (Eph 1:13).

Second Thessalonians 2:

We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)

God chose us to be saved, sanctified by the Spirit, and to believe in the truth. In fact, he called us not inaudibly, but through the preaching of the gospel.

First Peter 2:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Again, we see the doctrine of adoption. We were not God’s people, but we became God’s people. We were not chosen to simply go to heaven, but we were chosen to proclaim God’s excellencies. Not only did God choose us, but he also brought us out of darkness, which suggests that we are no longer living in ignorance.

Titus 2 says, “God and Savior Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit 2:13-14). Doesn’t that sound familiar? We learn the same thing from Ezekiel’s prophecy, not to mention Ephesians 2:1-10.

Let’s not overlook the many passages that relate to final judgment such as Romans 2:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6-8)

Perhaps no one covered this topic as extensively as Christ himself. For instance, he said:

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)

Of course, neither Paul nor Jesus meant to imply that we are saved by our works, but the redeemed will do good works. God causes it. “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Eze 36:27). “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10).

The lines run parallel. But those who lean toward salvation by works will erase or diminish the line of God’s sovereignty while Primitive Baptists diminish the line of human responsibility.

Notice that I did not accuse them of erasing it.

Primitive Baptists have developed a completely unique method for defending hyper-grace. Rather than simply ignore the passages that teach human responsibility, they reclassify them if you will. If a passage appears to show human involvement, action, or responsibility, then they claim that it must refer to a different kind of salvation, a “time” salvation.

Give ten people ten years to study the Bible, and none of them will return having adopted Primitive Baptist soteriology. Even Primitive Baptists struggle with numerous passages of Scripture. I was reading Hebrews 5 the other day and noticed the phrase, “Jesus became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” What does that mean? Frankly, you know what it means. You just don’t know how to make it fit the eternal-time paradigm.

It doesn’t fit. Salvation is better defined by past, present, and future. Bible passages are better understood as showing two sides of the same coin or two parallel lines: God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.

Don’t point me to verses that prove God’s sovereignty in salvation. We already agree on that. Rather, show me verses that distinctly teach time salvation. Explain John 1:13 without ignoring John 1:12. Explain Ezekiel 36:27 without ignoring Ezekiel 36:28. Give me a clear biblical reason to assume that the line of human responsibility is altogether disconnected from God’s sovereignty.

Consider Romans 10. Paul says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Ro 10:17). Ultimately, faith comes from God, but it also comes through the word of Christ. See James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, or 2 Thessalonians 2:14.

Addressing those who believed the truth, Paul quotes God who said, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me” (Ro 10:20). Even though humans preach the truth and humans believe the truth, God gets the glory. Through preaching, God draws sinners to himself. Despite the fact that people actively believe in him, God claims the credit for seeking them.

But not everyone believes. Paul again quotes God, saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Ro 10:21). Notice that God hold unbelievers personally responsible for their unbelief. He graciously holds out his hands, but they refuse. Even though God’s sovereign work of regeneration is necessary for a sinner to be converted, sinners are still responsible for their conversions.

To be candid, the problem that I faced for a long time was not that I failed to see what these verses say (and many others like them). The issue was that I made faulty assumptions about grace. Then, I allowed myself to filter every passage through those assumptions. I’m ashamed to admit that I would openly contradict the Word of God by suggesting, “This verse doesn’t mean what it says.”

If I were to dig a little deeper, I suppose that I didn’t want the Bible to mean what it says. Perhaps the only doctrine more comforting than hyper-grace is universalism. But what good is that comfort if it’s based on a falsehood?

As much as I dreaded the prospect of leaving the Primitive Baptists as well as some of the doctrines that had been my foundation for many years, I’m accountable to God. I have to answer to him, not to mention my own conscience. So here I am.

The first argument that I used to make against myself or my current understanding is that seeing regeneration and conversion as two sides of the same coin is contradictory. I used to call it a paradox. If we’re saved by grace, then how can humans be involved? Wouldn’t that mean that salvation is by works?

Weren’t humans involved in the crucifixion of Christ which procured our salvation? The prophets, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Judas Iscariot, Herod, Pilate, the Jews, the Roman soldiers—can we even count how many people made the death of Christ possible?

Even so, we know that God accomplished it all by his sovereign will and providence. Peter preached, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Ac 2:23). Should we think that God used people as his instruments in the past but not the present?

Is it really a contradiction to believe that God’s providence extends beyond the invisible? Is it really a paradox to say that God’s regenerating work causes us to turn to him, to follow him? After all, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2Co 5:17). We have brand new hearts, new identities, and new spirits.

It seems more contradictory to suggest otherwise. Are you telling me that Christ didn’t mean that his sheep actually follow him? Are you suggesting that a dead person brought to life doesn’t know that he’s alive? I firmly believe that God is the cause, but I won’t deny that his sovereign work has a real, pragmatic effect on regenerated people.

The second argument that I used to make against myself was based on the obvious consequences. I’d say to myself, “No, no, it can’t be. What about all of the people who have never even heard the gospel? What about the infants who died without the capacity to hear and believe the gospel?”

Those are good questions, but there’s a reason that I saved them for last.