By Rev. James Petigru Boyce
REGENERATION AND CONVERSION.
At the outset of a discussion of these two subjects we are met by the question, whether they are not one and the same thing. They are unquestionably so intimately associated that it is difficult to separate them and point out the distinctions between them. The Scriptures connect the two under the one idea of the new birth, and teach that not only is regeneration an absolute essential in each conversion, but that in every intelligent responsible soul conversion invariably accompanies regeneration. It is not strange, therefore, that they are often confounded. Yet, after all, the Scriptures also teach that regeneration is the work of God, changing the heart of man by his sovereign will, while conversion is the act of man turning towards God with the new inclination thus given to his heart.
I. It is best first to collect together the various terms and expressions in which this whole matter is taught.
1. Forms of the verb gennao, which means "to beget."
John 1:13; 3:3, 4 (two places), 5, 6, 7, 8; 1 Cor. 4:15; Philemon 10; 1 John 2:29; 3:9 (two places); 4:7; 5:1 (three places); 5:4, 18 (two places).
2. Compound forms of gennao.
1 Pet. 1:23. "Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth."
Titus 3:5. "He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost."
3. The word apekuesen is used in James 1:18, and means to bring forth or bear young, and there evidently means to bring to the condition of sonship.
4. Ktisis and ktizo, which mean creation and create, are found in 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10, 15; 4:24.
5. Sunezoopoiesen, he quickened together with (Christ). Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13.
In addition to the above uses of single words are the following passages which speak of the word of God as an effective instrument, but not as a creative power. These, however, do not connect this instrument with either regeneration or conversion necessarily; but speaks of it (a) as a means of partaking of the divine nature, 2 Pet. 1:4; (b) as a means of purifying, John 15:3; (c) as a means of Christian defense, Eph. 6:17; and (d) as an instrument of powerful conviction and destruction of the wicked, Heb. 4:12.
II. From the Scriptural teaching we see that the whole work of Regeneration and Conversion is included under the one term regeneration.
It is true that but few of the passages refer to anything save the work of God; yet these few sufficiently teach the use of the word in regeneration to lead us not to reject, as a part of it, that result of God's act which, in connection with the word, leads to the full union of its subject with Christ through repentance and faith.
The passages in connection with Paul as God's instrument, 1 Cor. 4:15, and Philemon 10, would not be conclusive, but they are made so by others.
However much James 1:18 suggests a different aspect of the work, namely, the bringing forth that which has been begotten, still it so nearly connects that idea with the begetting as to create doubt if the whole work may not be virtually involved.
But 1 Pet. 1:23, by the use of the compound of gennao, shows that all the work of the Spirit, including both the new heart and the leading of it to conscious faith, is properly to be spoken of by the same term as a mere change of heart.
The whole work is thus spoken of, however, because God is operative from the beginning to the end, but this does not prove that he does not operate differently in one part from what he does in the other.
III. The Scripture teaching is that God operates immediately upon the heart to produce the required change, by which it is fitted to receive the truth, and mediately through the word in its reception of that truth.
1. He operates immediately upon the heart to prepare the way for the truth. This is evident
(1.) From the description given of man's spiritual condition.
(a) As spiritually dead. Eph. 2:1.
(b) As blind. Eph. 4:18.
(c) As slaves to sin. John 8:34; Rom. 6:17, 19.
(d) As needing deliverance from the powers of darkness. Col. 1:13.
(e) As incapable of knowing or discerning the things of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:18.
(f) As incapable of changing himself. Jer. 13:23.
(g) As defiled in conscience. Tit. 1:15.
These passages show man in a condition from which he must be rescued even to understand and appreciate the truth of God.
(2.) The Scripture attributes the birth to the will of God exclusively, thus showing that in some aspect it is not to be regarded as due to the reception of the truth. John 1:13.
[For sections (3), (4), (5) and (6), see Hodge's Outlines, p. 451.]
(3.) The influence of the Spirit is distinguished from that of the word. John 6:45, 64, 65; 1 Cor. 2:12-15; 1 Thess. 1:5, 6.
(4.) A divine influence is declared to be necessary for the reception of the truth. Ps. 119:18; Acts 16:14; Eph. 1:17-20.
(5.) Such an internal operation on the heart is attributed to God. Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21; Phil. 2:13; 2 Thess. 1:11; Heb. 13:21.
(6.) The nature of this influence is evidently different from that effected by the truth. Eph. 1:19; 3:7; 2 Tim. 2:25.
(7.) This influence is spoken of as a preparation of the heart for the truth; which, therefore, must be distinct from the truth or its reception. Luke 8:8, 15; Acts 16:14.
This preparation of the heart comes from God. 1 Chron. 29:18, 19; Ps. 119:18; Prov. 16:1; Acts 16:14; Rom. 9:23.
2. The Spirit acts mediately through the word.
(1.) He inspired that word and sends it forth for the accomplishment of the ends designed. John 14:16; 2 Tim. 3:16.
(2.) He aids the ministry and others in making it known. 1 Cor. 4:7; 2 Thess. 3:1.
To the extent that these are his agents he uses the word.
(3.) The instrument thus used is in itself effective as truth. Heb. 4:12. Therefore, Christians are commanded in their spiritual warfare to take the word of God as the sword of the Spirit. Eph. 6:17. It is, however, made especially so to the heart prepared for it by his illuminating influences, which reveal its beauties and its suitableness, and by the aid of the memory which recalls, and the conscience which applies, and the affections which lay hold upon it. 2 Tim. 3:15, 16, 17.
(4.) Christians are, therefore, said to be "brought forth, (James 1:18), by the word of truth," because that is the seed sown in the prepared ground through which they are led by repentance and faith to union with Christ and sonship of God.
(5.) Since this use of the Scriptures is due to their own fitness to present motives to action, the Spirit of God is not limited to this word alone but uses such other truth, and such events of life as may be effective towards the contemplated end. Thus any events in God's providence, as afflictions, or dangers, or personal sins, or the conversion of others, or aught else that may lead to seeking God, are used as a means of awakening, or of giving deeper conviction, or of enforcing the Scripture truths which lead to conversion.
(6.) This is especially true of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord's Supper duly set forth before mankind. So far as these ordinances are fitted to convey truth, or to impress duty, they are instrumental in regeneration.
(7.) But neither of them regenerates or confers regeneration.
(a) This is not done by the Lord's Supper. It has been argued from John 6:51-58, where Christ promises eternal life to those who shall eat his flesh and drink his blood, and denies it to all who shall not. The language used refers to spiritual participation in his salvation. It is similar to the promise to the woman at Sychar that "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." John 4:14. It is argued that Christ must have meant partaking of his real body, because he did not correct the Jews who, because they so understood him, rejected him. But, John 8:51-53, he did not correct a similar mistake which led to a similar result when he said in verse 51, "If a man keep my word he shall never see death."
(b) Even more distinctly is this true of Baptism. Spiritual effects are spoken of in connection with this ordinance. Thus we have "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost." Titus 3:5. We have Paul exhorted by Ananias, Acts 22:16, "arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins," and the language of Christ, John 3:5, "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The first of these has reference to the cleansing influence of regeneration by the Spirit in like manner as his renewing, which is spoken of in the immediate context and has no reference to baptism. That the last refers to baptism is at least doubtful; but admitting that it does, which is doubtless true of the second, we have here outward baptism, only as symbolizing an inward change and not producing it. The following reasons plainly show that neither of these ordinances has regenerating power.
(1.) That ordinances can only be signs of grace and cannot confer it.
(2.) They may convey truth symbolically, and only such truth is fitted to affect the mind. But nothing symbolized by these two can confer regeneration upon those receiving them.
(3.) They are appointed to be used only by those who have been regenerated. Baptism is an act of obedience, symbolizing the death of believers to sin, and resurrection to new life, and setting forth their union with Christ in his death and burial. The Lord's Supper is to be partaken of by those already, as Christian believers, united together in church fellowship.
(4.) That this was the use of Baptism is evident from the practice of the Apostolic Christians. Acts 2:41. The baptized had received his word. This followed repentance and preceded baptism. The addition to the text in Acts 8:37 could not have taken place had it not been for the universal prevalence of the idea that faith necessarily precedes baptism. Paul before his baptism had received the Lord Jesus and his eyes had been opened and the Holy Ghost given. Acts 9:18. Cornelius and his house also received the Holy Ghost and spake with tongues before their baptism. Acts 10:44-48. The Jailer at Philippi manifestly believed before he was baptized. Baptism without antecedent faith was treated as invalid in certain disciples at Ephesus. Acts 19:1-5.
(5.) That this was also true of the Lord's Supper is shown by the fact that it was partaken of only by churches, and the members of churches are everywhere spoken of and treated as converted persons; also by the further fact that it was a memorial service ("in remembrance of me") and a memorial implies previous knowledge of the persons and facts remembered. But only such a knowledge and remembrance could be blessed, as involved faith in Jesus. 1 Cor. 11:28, 29.
(6.) The Spirit does not make truth effective by giving it additional force to that which it has naturally, but by so affecting the mind that the man is prepared to receive it with its own due force. Thus he changes the mind, illuminates the mind, helps it appreciate and lay hold of truth. Only thus does he make truth effectual. Therefore, the outward washing or partaking can have no effect to renew, or regenerate the heart, which must itself have been prepared, before it can even appropriate the truths conveyed by these ordinances.
The above statements are only intended to meet the views of Romanists and such others as claim regenerating influence of sacraments, and not those of such as make Baptism only a condition of pardon. The latter claim that regeneration is through the word only and are met by the proofs that the Spirit acts independently of the word.
I. This is the result of regeneration. The new heart is prepared to turn to God and does actually so turn. Without regeneration, the sinfulness of man keeps him away from God, causes him to set his affections upon self and his own pleasure, and to find gratification in things which are opposed to God and holiness. The regenerated heart has new affections and desires and is, therefore, fitted to seek after God and holiness.
II. It is both the act of God and of man co-operating with him.
1. It is the act of God. It is thus described in the Scriptures.
1 Kings 18:37. "Thou hast turned their heart back again."
Ps. 80:3. "Turn us again, O God; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved."
Ps. 85:4. "Turn us, O God of our salvation."
Song of Sol. 1:4. "Draw me; we will run after thee."
Jer. 30:21. "I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me."
Jer. 31:18. "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned."
Ezek. 36:27. "And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them."
John 6:44. "No man can come to me, except the Father which sent me draw him."
2. It is the act of the regenerated heart actively co-operating in thus turning.
Deut. 4:30. "Thou shalt return to the Lord thy God."
Prov. 1:23. "Turn you at my reproof."
Hosea 12:6. "Therefore turn thou to thy God."
Isaiah 55:7. "Let him return unto the Lord."
Joel 2:13. "Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God."
Acts 11:21. "A great number that believed turned unto the Lord."
III. The question naturally arises what is the nature of conversion. In reply it may be said that it consists:
1. Not in mere outward reformation.
2. Not in return from backsliding.
3. But in the turning of the heart to God and holiness. It is a turning of the thoughts, desires and affections of the heart from sinful and carnal lusts and pleasures toward holy things, and God, and Christ, and salvation. It is a turning from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God. [See Gill's Divinity 2:132-4.] It consists "in a man's turning actively to God under the influence of divine grace." [Gill 2:135]
IV. This conversion comprises:
1. A knowledge of the true God, and acceptance of him as such.
2. Knowledge of personal sin, guilt and condemnation.
3. Sorrow for sin and desire to escape condemnation.
4. Determination to turn away from sin and seek God.
5. Conviction of personal need of help in so doing.
6. Knowledge of Christ as a Saviour from sin.
7. Personal trust in Christ and his salvation.
NOTE. A man in one sense maybe called converted as soon as he has truly turned to God and is also seeking to know and do his will. This is that amount of conversion which is so nearly contemporaneous with regeneration as to be liable to be supposed to exist at the same moment with it, and which indeed in a being capable of thought on such subjects must be its immediate effect.
But what the Scriptures and common language comprise in this word is repentance and trust in God's saving power, and, in connection with Christian knowledge, trust in Jesus Christ as a Saviour. The attainment of the fullness of such conversion is by the gradual appreciation of truth, resulting not only from regeneration, and knowledge, but from spiritual illumination of the mind.
V. The relation of regeneration to conversion will, therefore, appear to be one of invariable antecedence.
Wherever the appropriate truth is at the time present its relation is almost that of producing cause, for the prepared heart at once receives the truth. Hence, as this is so generally the case, they have been usually regarded as contemporaneous and by some even as identical. But that regeneration is the invariable antecedent is seen,
1. From the fact that the heart is the soil in which the seed, the word of God, is sown, and that seed only brings forth fruit in the good soil. The heart is made good soil by regeneration.
2. Regeneration (as in infants) may exist without faith and repentance, but the latter cannot exist without the former. Therefore, regeneration precedes.
3. Logically the enabling act of God must, in a creature, precede the act of the creature thus enabled. But this logical antecedence involves actual antecedence, or the best conceptions of our mind deceive us and are not reliable. For this logical antecedence exists only because the mind observes plainly a perceived dependence of the existence of the one on the other. But such dependence demands, if not causal, at least antecedent existence. Here it is only antecedent.
VI. There is not only antecedence, but in some cases an appreciable interval.
1. This is true even of conversion regarded as a mere turning to God. Between it and regeneration must intervene in some cases some period of time until the knowledge of God's existence and nature is given, before the heart turns, or even is turned towards that God.
(1.) This must be true of all infants and of all persons otherwise incapable of responsibility, as for example idiots.
(2.) There is no reason why it should not be true of some heathen. The missionaries of the cross have been sought by men, who knew nothing of Christianity, but whose hearts, unsatisfied with the religion of their fathers, were restlessly seeking for what their soul was crying out.
2. It is still more manifestly true of full Christian conversion.
(1.) The Scriptures teach this in many examples of persons pious, holy, and fearing God, yet unacquainted with the full truth which secures union with Christ.
Ethiopian Eunuch: Acts 8:26-40.
Paul: Acts, chapter 9, 22 and 26. Galatians, chapters 1st and 2d.
Cornelius the Centurion: Acts 10:2.
Lydia: Acts 16:14.
(2.) The experience of ministers in all ages with persons seeking and attaining salvation confirms this idea. The attainment of conversion may be marked by stages. The sinner is at first totally indifferent. The word produces on him no effect. Then (1.) There is an evident willingness to give serious attention to the truth of God. God has opened the heart as he did that of Lydia. (2.) There is conviction of sin, sense of its vileness, and of its dangerous effects. (3.) The soul, oppressed by these, strives to do something by which to attain salvation, but finds all in vain. (4.) At last accepting the truth of God's word it rests in trust of a personal Saviour.
VII. The term conversion is not technically applied to any change, except that which follows upon regeneration, and consists in the Godward turning of one heretofore turned entirely away from God. The return of men who have backslidden, or fallen into grievous sin, is also called "a return to God," and such a return is possibly what is called "conversion" in Peter's case. Luke 22:32. But conversion is theologically used exclusively of the first act.