Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How Protestants completely botch the Biblical teaching on what being "Born Again" means (a.k.a "Regeneration" in Calvinism)

As I looked upon the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Regeneration," I was fascinated by what I saw. Below I will quote from the entry, but trim it down for brevity and to highlight some key points:
Regeneration is a Biblico-dogmatic term closely connected with the ideas of justification, Divine sonship, and the deification of the soul through grace. Confining ourselves first to the Biblical use of this term, we find regeneration from God used in indissoluble connection with baptism, which St. Paul expressly calls "the laver of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). In His discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:5), the Saviour declares: "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The idea of "birth from God" enjoys a special favor in the Joannine theology. Outside the Fourth Gospel (Jn 1:12 sq.; 3:5), the Apostle uses the term in a variety of ways, treating "birth of God" as synonymous now with the "doing of justice" (1 John 5:1, 4 sq.), and elsewhere deducing from it a certain "sinlessness" of the just (1 John 3:9; 5:18), which, however, does not necessarily exclude from the state of justification the possibility of sinning. It is true that in all these passages there is no reference to baptism nor is there any reference to a real "regeneration"; nevertheless, "generation from God", like baptismal "regeneration", must be referred to justification as its cause. Both terms effectually refute the Protestant notion that there is in justification not a true annihilation, but merely a covering up of the sins which still continue (covering-up theory), or that the holiness won is simply the imputation of the external holiness of God or Christ (imputation theory).

The very idea of spiritual palingenesis [rebirth/regeneration] requires that the justified man receive through the Divine generation a quasi-Divine nature as his "second nature", which cannot be conceived as a state of sin, but only as a state of interior holiness and justice. Thus alone can we explain the statements that the just man is assured "participation in the divine nature" (cf. 2 Peter 1:4), becomes "a new creature" (Galatians 5:6; 6:15), effects which depend on justifying faith working by charity, not on "faith alone" (sola fides). When the Bible elsewhere refers regeneration to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3) or to "the word of God who liveth and remaineth forever" (1 Peter 1:23), it indicates two important external factors for justification, which have nothing to do with its formal cause. To the above-mentioned ideas of regeneration, generation out of God, participation in the Divine nature, and re-creation, a fifth, that of Divine sonship, must be added; this represents the formal effect of justification and is crowned by the personal indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the justified soul (cf. Romans 5:5; 8:11; 1 Corinthians 3:16 sq.; 6:19, etc.). Since, however, this Divine sonship is expressly described as a mere adoptive sonship (cf. Romans 8:15 sqq.; Galatians 4:5), it is evident that "regeneration from God" implies no substantial emerging of the soul from the nature of God as in the case of the eternal generation of the Son of God (Christ), but must be regarded as an analogical and accidental generation from God.

The idea of regeneration in the sense of individual justification is most conspicuous in the writings of St. Augustine. With an unrivaled keenness, he evolved the essential distinction between the birth of the Son of God from the substance of the Father and the generation of the soul from God through grace, and brought together into an organic association regeneration, with its kindred ideas, and justification (cf. e.g. Enarration on Psalm 49, no. 2). Like the Church, St. Augustine associates justification with faith working through charity, and refers its essence to the interior renewal and sanctification of the soul. Adhering strictly to the Bible and tradition, the Council of Trent (Sess. VI, capp. iii-iv) regarded regeneration as fundamentally nothing else than another name for the justification acquired through the Sacrament of Baptism.
This is fascinating because Catholic tradition has equated "regeneration" with the doctrine of Justification, and since "re-generation" literally means "born again," the various "born again" passages in John's writings (and 1 Peter) are probably referring essentially to Justification as well. The above quote notes that this realization obliterates the Protestant notion of Justification, which is a strictly legal transaction, taking place entirely outside of the individual. The only "escape" from the linking of Regeneration with Justification is for a Protestant to claim that being "born again" (or "regenerated") is distinct from being Justified, but even this 'solution' results in significant problems, especially considering the Biblical evidence.

Consider all the Biblical texts I could find where there's reference to being "born again" or "regenerated":

  • Matthew 19:28 Truly, I say to you, in the new world [Greek: regeneration], when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones
  • Titus 3:5-7 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit ... so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life
  • John 1:12-13 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 3:3-8 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God
  • 1 Peter 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead
  • 1 Peter 1:23 love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God
  • 1 Jn 2:29 (1 Jn 3:9; 5:18)  everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him
  • 1 Jn 4:7 (1 Jn 5:4) whoever loves has been born of God and knows God
  • 1 Jn 5:1 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

Most people don't know this, but the Reformed hold to something called "Effectual Calling," which the Westminster Confession speaks about in Ch10. This doctrine basically teaches that in order for a sinner to accept the Gospel, they must first be acted upon by God's saving power, which enables them to actually hear and accept the Gospel. This teaching is actually pretty true, as it refutes the Pelagian notion that man doesn't need grace in order to accept the truth and to come to God. The Catholic Church has been very adamant than grace must precede any and every good work we do, including believing, from the very first moment in our salvation. The problem with the Reformed claim is two-fold.

First, the Reformed do not believe that grace builds on our humanity, so they really cannot explain what grace does to us. They hold that Adam originally did not need grace before he fell, but this means Adam could believe and do good works apart from grace, which is actually the foundation of Pelagianism (which the Reformed unwittingly embraced in their understanding of human nature). Furthermore, Catholic theology is clear that even the good angels needed grace to assist them in responding faithfully to God, whereas Reformed theology doesn't appear to have even realized this, and this is why Catholic theology holds that even Mary who was without sin still needed grace to persevere in Her spotlessness (hence her claim "My spirit rejoices in God my savior" in the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-47).

Second, the Reformed claim, e.g., in the Westminster Confession linked above, that regeneration by means of Effectual Calling consists of God calling the elect in this way:
out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ. 
And after discussing Justification in Ch11, and Adoption in Ch12, the Westminster speaks on Sanctification in Ch13, starting with these words:
They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection
So the Reformed have basically placed Regeneration/BornAgain in the category of Effectual Calling, which they would classify under the broader heading of Sanctification. This is problematic because it basically places Sanctification prior to Justification, with Justification not being based on any change within us, while the Reformed are adamant that a fundamental error of Catholicism is equating Justification and Sanctification. In other words, the Reformed claim the Catholic position is wrong for insisting a radical transformation happens during Justification, and yet the Reformed place a radical inward transformation prior to Justification, with essentially the same result.

What's the purpose or need of Imputing Christ's Righteousness to a sinner who has been radically transformed inwardly, given a new heart, and is pleasing to God in virtue of this transformation? When Paul says "God justifies the ungodly" in Romans 4:5, Protestants have often claimed this means that God declares righteous someone who is in fact unrighteous. This text is a key place where they assert the "logic" of imputation: God declares the rotten sinner to be 'righteous' precisely because the rotten sinner is covered by Christ's righteousness. Yet there cannot be a rotten sinner given that Effectual Calling / Regeneration has already taken place prior to Justification! I've written about this a few times elsewhere on this blog.

And that's not all, the Reformed state, e.g., in Westminster Chapter 12, that Adoption takes place after Justification,
All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father: yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.
As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry, Born Again, Regeneration, is synonymous with Justification and Adoption, according to Catholic theology and the Bible. The verses quoted above do not really allow the Reformed to assert that Regeneration/BornAgain happens prior to Justification and, afterwards, at Adoption.

Many times in the past, including in my post The Justification Verses Protestants Missed, I point out how Titus 3:4-7 links "saved by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" with "being justified by His grace," thus indicating regeneration happens at justification, directly contradicting the Reformed claim. No other time does the Bible use the term "regeneration," except Matthew 19:28 (speaking of the Resurrection), so if the Reformed want to be Biblical, they must use Titus 3:4-7 as their fundamental Regeneration prooftext. Furthermore, the "washing" here has been unanimously understood by the Church Fathers to refer to Baptism, and linked with the term "regeneration" we have a plain prooftext for Baptismal Regeneration - a doctrine which Protestantism universally rejects, though even Calvin and the Reformed admit the term "washing" here refers to Baptism (see Westminster 28:1, including prooftext citing Titus 3:5, and Calvin's commentary on Titus 3:5). And John 3:3-5 links being Born Again with being Born of Water & Spirit, which again the Church Fathers have unanimously understood to mean Baptism, and thus we have a text clearly saying Baptism causes one to be Born Again.

In my two-part post, Imputed Righteousness in the New Covenant, I note that the two components characterizing life in the New Covenant were (1) forgiveness of sins, and (2) renewal by the Holy Spirit, giving us a new heart, so that we can keep the commandments of Jesus. This is significant because these make Imputation unecessary: why do we need Christ's Righteousness when we have been forgiven and enabled to fulfill the law ourselves?

Lastly, looking at the other Biblical passages cited above, it is plain that in John and Peter, the essence of salvation is summed up in being born again and becoming children of God. This would, again, push the notion of a forensic justification out of the way as superfluous and have it sitting awkwardly alone, disjointed from the common "Sanctification" theme clearly tied with Regeneration, Born Again, Adoption, etc. In John 1:12-13, we see being born of God is what makes one a child of God, and indeed the very term "born" when used anywhere for our salvation necessarily indicates adoption. The rest of the text emphasize the radical change that happens within due to being Born Again, which undermines the whole mindset behind Imputation. It is ironic that John and Peter would be so focused on us as Children of God, while being oblivious to the forensic nature of Salvation.

While non-Reformed Protestants would say that texts like John 1:12-13 and 1 John 5:1 ("Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God") teach that it is our faith that causes us to be Born Again, it's best to read it as being Born Again leads to us believing. While it can be understood that faith leads to accepting the Gospel (e.g. getting Baptized), resulting in being Born Again/Regenerated, the grammar suggests just the opposite. In this way, the Catholic would say the Reformed are half correct, but with the proper interpretation being that Baptism causes us to be Born Again (as noted earlier), and through this we have the divine virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love infused into us as good habits (good dispositions) within us, whereas prior to Baptism we only have individual acts of faith that lead us to the Baptismal Waters.

In Conclusion, while Protestantism is big on the notion of being "Born Again," they really don't let the Bible guide them on defining what this means, and thus (yet again) substitute traditions of men to supplant God's Word, as they do with every other one of their doctrines.