The word “regeneration” for most of us today refers to that one-time, unseen, inner moment when the Holy Spirit flips the switch and brings us from death to life. We’ve heard time and again, “Regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith.” And therefore if anyone should start using the word “regeneration” and “baptism” in the same sentence, he would quickly find himself in hot water.
But where does this modern definition of “regeneration” come from? How has the Church and her scholars traditionally used this term?
John Calvin seems to have a pretty broad definition for the word –
In Institutes III.3.9, he says “I interpret repentance as regeneration whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God… [then he lists a number of verses we normally associate with sanctification – 2 Cor. 3:18, Eph 4:23, Col 3:10]… this restoration does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances.”
In IV.16.3 he uses regeneration as a synonym for mortification; a gradual putting to death of the works of the flesh.
In III.17.6 he talks about the fruit of regeneration and points to Psalm 15 – “Lord who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart.” For Calvin, these things are not only indications of regeneration but a part of the process of regeneration as well.
In III.21.7 and in his sermon on 1 Cor 10:12-14 he speaks about the Spirit of Regeneration enabling the believer to persevere.
Then from “Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters” (Vol. III, pg. 594-595, Beveridge, Baker, 1983) Calvin speaks of regeneration as being “renewed by His Spirit into obedience of the Law”. Of course again, this is not something that happens in one second, but that is an ongoing process.
So Calvin did not share our modern definition of the term. Further, the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t seem to use it in that way.
WCF 28.1 “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.”
One of the prooftexts provided is Titus 3:5 “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”
In terms of the confession’s language the word “regeneration” is used best when speaking about baptism. In fact that is the only time the confession uses the word “regeneration”. The Larger Catechism uses the word twice, both times in reference to baptism. The Smaller Catechism doesn’t use the word.
And in using the word “regeneration” to describe what happens in baptism, the Westminster Standards are reflecting the way that the Church has normally employed the word throughout history.
Justin Martyr, AD 148, Apol. 1. 61.
Then they are led by us to the water, and are regenerated by the same process of regeneration by which we were ourselves regenerated; for they then receive the laver in the water in the name of God the Father and Master of the universe and of our Savior Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost.
Clement of Alexandria, AD 192, Paedag. 1, Chap 12
He seems to me to form man of the dust, to regenerate him by water, to make him grow by His Spirit, to instruct him by His word.
Ambrose, AD 397, De Myst. 4.20.
Nor again, does the mystery of regeneration take place without water, for “Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
Cranmer, “Works on the Lord’s Supper”
As in our spiritual regeneration, there can be no Sacrament of Baptism if there be no water. For as Baptism is no perfect Sacrament of spiritual regeneration without there be, as well, the element of water, as the Holy Ghost spiritually regenerating the person baptized, which is signified by the said water.
Of course our English translations of the Bible uses the word only twice – once in Matthew 19:28 where Jesus uses “The Regeneration” to speak of the new realm of the new creation. “So Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” And then we see the words used in the Titus passage that I’ve already mentioned, a passage that most often is understood to be speaking of baptism.
To quickly summarize, Calvin uses “regeneration” pretty broadly to speak about sanctification, mortification – the entire process of being conformed to the image of Christ and all that this entails. The Confession only uses the word in reference to baptism. The Church fathers and other respected orthodox theologians throughout the centuries have often employed the word “regeneration” when speaking about what the Spirit does in Baptism. The Bible uses the word “regeneration” in a couple of different ways, but certainly does not use it in the way that it is employed in present-day discussion.
Yet guys who make the mistake of using the word “regeneration” in the way that the Church and the Reformed tradition has always used, and who dare use it in the same sentence as “baptism” are accused of redefining terms.
Who has really redefined the term?