Repentance, Conversion and Regeneration
In this blog entry I would like to begin to address what I see as a very serious growing deficiency among many who refer to themselves as reformed in their theology. They often refer to themselves as coming from a somewhat different reformed tradition, one that emphasizes the sovereignty of God more highly. This form of so-called reformed theology is nothing more than a form of neo-orthodoxy blended with liberalism and neoliberalism.
Here is their argument as I have often heard it:
1. There are many scriptures that emphasize God’s sovereignty and choosing.
2. God is the one who effectually chooses the elect.
3. But God is love and desires for everyone to be saved.
4. Therefore, all are saved.
This kind of logic also leads to related conclusions:
Ø Ultimately, while it would be best for people to know and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, it is not required for salvation. Regeneration and conversion, while ideal, is not required for salvation.
Ø We preach the gospel of Christ’s love not for salvation, but for what is best for people.
Ø Fervor for evangelism is minimized or lost and is replaced with “social justice” actions.
Ø The substitutionary atonement of our Lord is minimized or disappears all together.
The question that must be wrestled with within a reformed tradition is how can God choose only some (the elect) and still be a totally loving God? For some, they abandon Orthodox Christianity, instead opting for neo-orthodoxy, becoming Universalists. Others become hardened toward extreme election opting for a default love of the elect and a lesser form of love for the non-elect. Both minimize or entirely exclude human freedom. (I will not here address the extreme Arminian errors that lead to open theism and a God who has no knowledge of the future. I will try to do so at a later date.) What happens in both camps though is a weakened or abandoned theological understanding of regeneration, conversion and the need for repentance and trusting salvific faith.
“Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” Westminster Confession of Faith
I will highlight just a few Biblical passages that speak about the need for regeneration, conversion, repentance and a trusting faith for salvation. I will not be focusing on the source of this trusting faith as this would take many more blog entries, but rather I would like to look at the necessity of this faith for salvation and how scripture describes conversion.
Paul referred to conversion when he said to the Ephesian elders, “I have declared to both Jews and Greek that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). In the book of Acts we also discover that genuine conversion involves believing in the truth (Acts 11:21; 15:11), a turning from evil (8:22) and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation (20:21). Luke records the message of the physically resurrected Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:15-18). Clearly the reception of forgiveness and a place among those who are sanctified is by faith, which requires a turning from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. This chapter serves as a bookend to Peter’s sermon/speech in chapter 2. “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.’ With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (2:37-41). What is so fascinating and marvelous about this passage is it has a place for both Calvinists and Armenians to rest their hat. Both the ‘call’ of the elect and the ‘save yourselves’ through free will are connected in the event of conversion; neither should be denied and both must be affirmed, though we might not understand precisely how this happens. They are not contradictory, but only a mystery to us in our time-bound finite minds. But whether you are more Calvinist or Armenian, what is clear is that there is a requirement of conversion and regeneration and a response of faith is called upon from the person. This is not a small issue, but is at the very heart of apostolic Christianity. This is the task of every Christian, which we must take very seriously, because it means spiritual eternal life and death. Our hearts should break within us when people choose not to accept the message of the gospel and we should be on our knees in tears over those who are lost.
For those who believe that a person can have some kind of saving “faith” without knowledge of Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, I once again come to the book of Acts. It is here that we see very clearly that faith is belief in the truths of the Gospel and a commitment and obedience to Jesus. We can see this in the fact that the object of faith was to be the person of Jesus (Acts 11:17; 14;23; 16:31) as well as the preached word (4:4; 17:11) and the full message of saving doctrine (6:7; 13:8; 14:22; 16:5). This clearly indicates a certain minimum knowledge of the gospel message with the focus being a trusting in the person of Jesus Christ for salvation.
Nowhere in the book of Acts is there any indication that people are saved without a faith that has a basic knowledge of the gospel, repentance, and a trusting faith in the crucified and bodily resurrected Jesus Christ. The gospel message is always accompanied by a call to repent, believing the truth and trusting the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
In parts 2 and 3 of this series I will focus on the witness of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the rest of the New Testament.
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