Conversion and regeneration

by Mike Ratliff

12 “While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. 17 I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, 18 to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ Acts 26:12-18 (NKJV) 

I am sure most of you have heard Jeff Foxworthy’s ‘You may be a redneck if…” comedy routine. There is another form of it from Mr. Foxworthy with the word “redneck” replaced with the word “hypocrite.” This is, of course, an attempt at “Church humor.” After a few of the quips, at least to me, the humor becomes strained. It is no longer funny because each “You may be a hypocrite if” statement stresses the ugly half-heartedness which plagues the majority of church members. For example, one of them said something like, “You may be a hypocrite if you read “Left Behind” at work and “Fanny Hill” at home.

A hypocrite is someone who implies he or she stands for one set of values, but actually lives out their life doing the opposite. Since the post-modern church is mired in hypocrisy, one might assume that Christianity was the problem. If Christianity really was the one and only true religion and Jesus’ disciples truly are changed by their new birth in Christ, the hypocrite label should not stick. Why? True Biblical Christianity professes that all in Christ not only have their sins forgiven them, but they are also new creations who are no longer under the power of their former sins.

Sadly, the vast majority of post-modern professing Christians is in bondage to sin and is far more in love with this world than they are with their Saviour. This should not be! The problem is not with Christianity, but with a doctrinally unsound aberration of it. This “counterfeit Christianity” is rooted in Humanism. It places Man’s will equal with God’s will. Salvation is taught in such a way that people believe they “choose” salvation by accepting Jesus as Saviour by reciting a “sinner’s prayer.” As a result, these “Converts” believe their salvation came because they made the correct decision while the lost have not done so. After a short time, however, most of these conversions fail to “stick.” They fall away as soon as the going gets tough. Most of the remainder fall into the role of “hypocrite” while a small remnant lives their lives in such a way that they grow in grace.

What makes the difference? That small remnant who do grow in grace is made up of those whose hearts have been regenerated by God at the moment of their conversion. This regeneration makes them new creations. They are Born Again. Conversion is not equal to regeneration. Think of conversion as a religious act and regeneration as a miracle wrought by our sovereign God as an act of grace. No matter how religious one becomes it will never result in the miracle of regeneration.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (NKJV) 

How anyone could come up with a doctrine of salvation based on religion after reading that passage is beyond me. Let’s look closely at this passage. Salvation is by grace through faith. There are many who say that the faith is our part and the grace is God’s part. If we left it at this point, that may make sense, but let’s go deeper. What does the second statement in that passage say? It says our salvation is not our own doing. Instead, it is a gift of God, not a result of works. How can that be if we must have faith? The last part of that statement says that our salvation is accomplished in such a way that none of us may boast about it. So, do we have a paradox? Let’s look at another passage.

10 As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-18 (NKJV)

What an ugly statement. Unfortunately, all unsaved people fit this description. Without God’s grace, we are all unrighteous. We do not understand God nor do we seek Him. We all turn aside from righteous behavior. We are spiritually worthless. No one does anything that pleases God. We do not fear God. This is a description of the spiritually dead. Unless there is a miracle to bring what is dead to life then there is no salvation because without that there is no faith or belief possible. Why? The spiritually dead cannot make spiritual decisions to choose God. What is the miracle and when does it happen? I’m sure you have deduced that regeneration is the miracle. When does it happen?

28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. Romans 8:28-30 (NKJV) 

If we carefully read this passage, we see a progression. What happens first? The first statement speaks of God’s people living within God’s sovereign grace because of being called according to His purpose. The progression comes next. It is a description of those who are called according to God’s purpose. What is the first act and who does it? God foreknew them. To get a better understanding of this passage let’s compare it to another.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. Ephesians 1:3-12 (NKJV) 

The first statement in this passage tells us that God chose “us in Him” before the foundation of the world. Who is the “us in Christ?” That is all believers. When did God choose them? He chose them before the foundation of the World. Now go back to Romans 8:28-30. The word “foreknew” in this verse means to know someone intimately. It does not mean to know what someone will do or not do. Therefore, before God created the World He looked into the future and foreknew those to place His affection and love upon. He chose them. He elected them. He set into motion a set of acts that would accomplish a specific result. We see that in Ephesians 1:3-12. In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ. Why? Look back a few verses. God chose His elect and set His affection and attention on them so that they should be holy and blameless before Him. Now let’s go back to Romans 8:28-30. This passage gives another reason God predestined all true believers. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Let’s summarize before jumping into regeneration. God chose all who would be saved before the foundation of the World according to His own sovereign will. It had nothing to do with any of our attributes. He set His purpose and affection on this select group of people. Why? So that in His timing they would be holy and blameless before Him so they would be Jesus siblings. With that purpose in mind, how does God save people who hate Him, want nothing to do with Him, and think that sin is just fine? As we said earlier, it takes the miracle of regeneration. Back in Romans 8:28-30 what is the next step after foreknowledge and predestination? God calls sinners to salvation. What does this entail? Let’s take a quick look at another passage.

44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:44 (NKJV) 

The word draw in this verse is the Greek word that is used to describe a fisherman drawing a net full of fish out of the water. The fish do not want to leave the water. They fight to get out of the net. However, they have no choice. They are “dragged” out of the water by the fisherman. Therefore, the Father “drags” all who are to be saved to Jesus. This is the effectual call of God that no one can resist. The general call of the gospel that preachers and teachers present to people is not the effectual call. In fact, people can and do resist that call all the time. The general call is able to produce “converts,” but it regenerates no one. The effectual call, the drawing, or dragging by God, from John 6:44 is the calling to salvation from Romans 8:28-30. This call is an act of God’s sovereign will and it comes through His grace. It regenerates the heart of the new believer. It takes what is spiritually dead and resurrects it. The new believer is Born Again.

Because of regeneration, the new believer no longer hates God. He or she sees their sin in the light of God’s regenerative power. They see how their sin separates them from God. In horror, they repent and turn to Jesus for salvation. They receive Him as Lord and savior by faith. This faith comes because of God’s regeneration of the heart. It is a gift from God. As the new believer exercises the faith God gave them He, in turn, justifies them. That means that God declares them righteous. He forgives all of their sins. This is justification by faith. Unless God does this, there is no eternal salvation. However, because of this declaration, the new believer is truly saved. This salvation is eternal. It is God’s act, not the believer’s act. After God justifies the new believer, He adopts him or her into His family. This makes all believers Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

What is the next step after justification? The next thing listed in Romans 8:28-30 is glorification. However, there is another step. After salvation, no new believer is mature. At salvation, each believer is a spiritual baby. Each of us must grow and mature in Christ so that we will be ready for the glorification in God’s timing. This spiritual maturing has a name. It is called sanctification. It is a work by God in each believer’s life to mature him or her unto Christ-likeness. A good picture of it is found in the following passage.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 (NKJV) 

All regenerated believers must cooperate with God in their sanctification to “work our their salvation with fear and trembling.” That means God uses our everyday circumstances, stresses, test and trials so we will learn to walk by faith. With each act of obedience and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives, we grow in Christ-likeness. There is no other way. If we will obediently do that then we will mature spiritually until God take us home.

The last step in salvation is glorification. The following passage gives us a hint of what that will be like. In addition, it gives us some motivation to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

1 Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 (NKJV) 

Conversion does not equal regeneration. Conversion is simply religious activity. Regeneration produces a new creation from what was a spiritually dead person. (2 Corinthians 5:17) Because of God’s foreknowing us, He predestined us for glorification. To accomplish this, God called, justified, adopted, and sanctified us. Salvation was not designed to save the whole World. God chose those who are His and He saves them according to His sovereign will.

Why are our churches full of hypocrites? Most are simply converts not the truly regenerate. Many of the regenerate are mired in spiritual immaturity because they don’t understand that they must submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ so they will mature unto Christ-likeness. Many believe their salvation was accomplished once and that was that, however, as we have seen, it is a process that continues until death.

Soli Deo Gloria!

2 thoughts on “Conversion and regeneration

  1. Why do so many reformed fellas go out of their way to say the God does not violate the will of the sinner in bringing him into the kingdom? As you noted above, the effectual call goes against our nature and is necessary before we can be made willing. If God did not violate our will, He would have to leave us dead in our sins.

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