Though it has enjoyed wide currency in the history of the church, the suggestion that regeneration takes precedence in the order of salvation (ordo salutis), cannot be sustained. It puts the cart before the horse, the goal before the kick-off.
First, John 1:12f. is frequently misunderstood, though its natural interpretation would seem to suggest that belief precedes the new birth (cf. 7:39; Acts 2:38, etc.). While there may not be a causal relationship between faith and the new birth, faith’s priority would seem to be a scriptural axiom (cf. e.g. Heb. 11). Why so? Because the indispensable prerequisite of the gift of new birth is righteousness (Lev. 18:5; Dt. 6:24f.; 32:46f.; Pr. 4:4,13; 7:2; 19:16; Ezek. 18:5-9; 33:15f.,19; Acts 5:32; 1 John 2:17b,29; 4:14; 5:1, etc.), and, as every good evangelical knows, since we can’t provide our own, Christ’s righteousness is received by faith (Phil. 3:9; Rom. 9:30;10:5, etc.). In other words, it is not until we are justified (accounted righteous) by faith in Christ that we are by the grace of God born again (cf. John 3:15f.,36; 1 John 5:11-13). Putting the issue starkly and simply:
No faith = no righteousness = no life.
While Galatians 3:2,5,14,16-18,21f.,26, for example, all indicate the priority of faith, in Romans also Paul is quite explicit. In 5:17 he tells us that those who receive the free gift of righteousness (obviously by faith) reign in life (cf. John 1:12). In verse 18 he says that one man’s (i.e. Christ’s) act of righteousness leads to justification and life, and in verse 21 he endorses this by asserting that grace reigns through righteousness which leads to eternal life. In chapter 6, Paul continues in like vein when he affirms that obedience leads to righteousness (v.16), righteousness to sanctification (v.19) and sanctification to eternal life (v.22). The same view is implicit in the so-called golden chain of salvation (8:30, cf. Tit. 3:7).
There are many who are afraid that denial of the priority of regeneration undermines divine grace. They seem to forget, however, that true faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). While it is essential to insist on this, it is also important to recognise that at this point human responsibility comes into play. For faith, like repentance, which is also the gift of God (Acts 5:31; 11:18), is exercised in us and by us (cf. Phil. 2:12f.). In contrast, the new birth excludes human responsibility since it is a unilateral or monergistic act of God. In it, as in our natural birth, we play no part. This being so, apart from other serious logical consequences, to maintain that the new birth comes first makes election arbitrary and reduces us to automata or robots. In contrast, Romans 8:29f. make it clear that predestination is anything but mechanical.
This leads to other matters of prime importance. First, if regeneration, which involves sanctification, is the cause of faith, then sanctification precedes justification. This means that justifying faith is not alone! But to say this is to undermine the very foundation of the Reformation. Second, and this point is absolutely critical, if regeneration comes first, then God regenerates, that is, gives eternal life to, the ungodly. This, Scripture from beginning to end, will not allow. The idea is implicitly refuted as early as Genesis 3:22-24, when the now ungodly Adam and Eve are barred from access to the tree of life. As Genesis 2:17 and the oft-repeated Leviticus 18:5 clearly teach, only the righteous can receive eternal life. This is the basic reason why sinners need to be justified by faith in Christ. Having no righteousness of our own, we need to receive his as a free gift of grace (Rom. 5:15-17; Phil. 3:9).
So, it is fundamental to recognise that though God justifies the ungodly, the very last thing he does is regenerate them. To do so would make them like God – but evil (Gen. 3:22). The thought is blasphemous!
The order of salvation embraced by many is founded on the erroneous dogma of original sin. But if this basic premise is false, inevitably an Augustinian conclusion is too. Neither the Jews nor the Orthodox have ever adopted the so-called Christian interpretation of Psalm 51:5. Galatians 3:22, like Romans 11:32, simply proves that we are all sinners. And, without denying a la Pelagius that Adam’s sin is a contributory factor (Rom. 5:12ff.), the reason why is amply indicated in the NT. After all, Adam’s sin was not the cause of Eve’s!
Since they are created by God (Job 31:15, etc.), blessed by the Saviour (Mk 10:16, cf. Gen. 18) and know neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39) children are innocent and cannot be otherwise until law impinges on their minds (Rom. 4:15, cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 7:8-10). So, provided we nurture them appropriately, we may safely leave them in the hands of a faithful Creator (1 Pet. 4:19) bearing in mind that while they are capable of faith, their responsibility is diminished like that of Paul (1 Cor. 13:11) whose ignorance (1 Tim. 1:13) at a later stage in his career gave way to knowledge of Christ as Saviour.
Finally, it might usefully be added that in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by faith” (ESV). If for a moment we drop “by faith”, we shall see immediately that it is the righteous who will live. In Galatians 3 Paul is of course at pains to demonstrate that we attain to righteousness by faith and not by the works of the law. Righteousness is nonetheless indispensable. While God may, in apparent contradiction of Ex. 23:7 and Prov. 17:15, justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), he certainly does not regenerate them! If he did then, as noted above, they would be eternally characterised as such. In any case, if our goal is eternal life (cf. Mt. 19:16) and we are regenerated before we are justified, why bother with justification at all? It, like the process of sanctification, becomes redundant, so let us eat, drink and be merry for never shall we die!
Clearly, the traditional order of salvation in both its Catholic and Reformed form is antinomian to the core, and it is scarcely surprising that that this has ever been the tendency of infant baptism and the notion of baptismal regeneration particularly. In Scripture, however, the saints, that is, the regenerate, are those who first repent, believe, keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev. 12:17; 14:12).
I conclude that “justification by regeneration”* is contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible, not least because it undermines justification by faith alone. According to Jesus himself, keeping the commandments, that is, obedience (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7), is the way to life (Mt. 19: 17, cf. Gen. 2:17). And since we as “flesh” are completely unable to keep the commandments (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16) as God intended, we are inexorably driven to Jesus who alone of all men who ever lived succeeded in pleasing his Father (Mt. 3:17; John 5:30; 8:29, cf. 1 John 3:22) in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). So without the Son by whose “alien righteousness” we are justified by faith (Phil. 3:9), we do not have the Father (1 John 2:23; 3:23; 5:11-13; 2 John 9).
* The expression “justification by regeneration” is used by S.B.Ferguson in “The Glory of the Atonement, pp. 431f., ed. Charles E.Hill & Frank A. James III, Downers Grove, 2004.