Calvinism teaches the concept of preemptive New Birth as a consequence of the fallen state of man. But in that regard, Calvinism is only partially correct. Man is fallen, and the New Birth with the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit does nurture faith, but the New Birth, the Indwelling, regeneration, and being “in Christ,” all comes after salvation. So that leaves the question of how God reaches fallen man. The answer is Prevenient Grace, which is just the grace that proceeds, and which Calvinism must necessarily agree to, but where the difference lies is in that one side says that it is resistible, and the other side says that it is irresistible. Prevenient Grace is the preceding work of the Holy Spirit to prepare the unbeliever so that they can respond to the divine encounter. The Holy Spirit convicts and Jesus knocks.
To summarize, the Arminian perspective on Regenerative Grace is that only after a man first hears and believes in the Gospel, is he then sealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit as a Born Again child of God. Ephesians 1:13 states: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Conversely, R.C. Sproul informs us that a critical aspect of Calvinism is that a man must first be made Born Again before he hears and believes in the Gospel, or else since he is so totally depraved, he will never receive it. However, there’s more. Calvinism teaches that God preemptively removes the old heart and implants a new one that will irresistibly embrace the gospel (i.e. Irresistible Grace). However, such a theory has a major catch. 2nd Corinthians 5:17 states: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Therefore, the Calvinist doctrine of preemptive Regenerative Grace requires that a person be preemptively placed “in Christ” because that’s the only place where the new, regenerated heart is received, and thus that becomes a breaking point for Calvinism, since only believers are among the redeemed “in Christ” (Romans 8:1, 33), while condemned unbelievers remain in Adam. (John 3:18)
Calvinist, Charles Spurgeon, explains: “If I am to preach faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. But you will tell me that I ought to preach it only to those who repent of their sins. Very well; but since true repentance of sin is the work of the Spirit, any man who has repentance is most certainly saved, because evangelical repentance never can exist in an unrenewed soul. Where there is repentance there is faith already, for they never can be separated. So, then, I am only to preach faith to those who have it. Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners.” (The Warrant of Faith, emphasis mine)
Due to contradictory statements from Spurgeon, concerning regeneration, it is possible that while he certainly affirmed a preceding Regenerative Grace, perhaps this quote reflects a reluctance to accept the further notion of Preemptive New Birth, which is similarly reflected by other Calvinists:
Calvinist, D. James Kennedy, writes: “Our faith and our repentance are the work of God’s grace in our hearts. Our contribution is simply the sin for which Jesus Christ suffered and died. Would you be born anew? There has never been a person who sought for that who did not find it. Even the seeking is created by the Spirit of God. Would you know that new life? Are you tired of the emptiness and purposelessness of your life? Are you tired of the filthy rags of your own righteousness? Would you trust in someone else other than yourself? Then look to the cross of Christ. Place your trust in him. Ask him to come in and be born in you today. For Jesus came into the world from glory to give us second birth because we must--we MUST--be born again.” (Why I Believe, p.140, emphasis mine)
Clearly, Kennedy is not advocating a doctrine whereby man is already Born Again before he prays to be made Born Again. Rather, he indicates that one is to pray to receive Christ in order to be made Born Again by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, what would be the point of asking Christ to come in and make you Born Again if you are already Born Again? Thus, he’s not advocating Preemptive New Birth.
By and large, however, Calvinism rejects the Arminian perspective as being Decisional Regeneration, predominantly preferring the aforementioned perspective of Preemptive Regeneration:
Calvinist, James White, asks: “Do we believe to become born again, or must we first be born again before we can exercise true, saving faith? Can the natural man do what is pleasing to God? Can the dead choose to allow themselves to be raised to life?” (Debating Calvinism, p.198, emphasis mine)
However, what John 3:3 actually says is this: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” So, is this talking about being able to “enter heaven” (John 3:5), or about being able to believe? The Bible never seems to say what Calvinism requires. In every instance, the Calvinist must infer something from the verse in order to get Calvinism out of it, and that should be troubling.
John Calvin writes: “For the evangelist says that no one can believe except he who is born of God. Therefore faith is a heavenly gift. Moreover, faith is not cold and bare knowledge, for no one can believe unless he is born again by the Spirit of God.” (John: The Crossway Classic Commentaries, p.24, emphasis mine)
To the Arminian, this doesn’t make any sense, since it’s like saying that a person needs to be saved in order to be saved. However, Calvinists protest that it merely means that we must be regenerated before we can be saved. So the puzzled non-Calvinist asks, “Are you suggesting that being regenerated is not equal to salvation? Are you suggesting that a person who is Born Again is lost until he believes?”
Jerry Vines writes: “Salvation is being born into the family of God and becoming aware of the presence of God in your life.” (Exploring 1-2-3 John, p.60, emphasis)
Essentially, then, salvation and regeneration go hand in hand, just as Spurgeon also explained. However, most Calvinists insist upon the contrary, in that regeneration is not an aspect of salvation, but merely a prelude to salvation. However, since the new birth is a facet of being in Christ, then the Calvinist is also forced to conclude that someone who is redeemed in Christ, as per Romans 8:1, remains lost until he applies faith in Christ. Hence, this is where that aspect of Calvinism ultimately collapses.
Jerry Vines explains: “The lost man or woman has no desire for the things of God. Unregenerate souls have no interest in finding out what God wants them to be and to do. But the new-birth experience puts into our heart a desire really and actually to do what God wants.” (Exploring 1-2-3 John, p.49, emphasis mine)
Vines explains: “When we are born of God, his seed, a new nature, remains in us. The new life we receive from God at the moment of salvation is the seed, the new dynamic.” (Exploring 1-2-3 John, p.117, emphasis mine)
Vines explains: “But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ through the new-birth experience will give you a new nature, the nature of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ can meet the battles for you and conquer them, giving you victory.” (Exploring 1-2-3 John, p.184, emphasis mine)
When you become a Christian, you receive the fruits of the Spirit, which includes faith. (Galatians 5:22) However, faith also comes from hearing the Gospel (Romans 10:17), and how much faith is necessary to move any mountain? So anyone who hears the Word of Christ, can receive faith from it. The Calvinist’s dispute, then, is why doesn’t everyone make right use of the faith dispensed from hearing the Gospel? That then becomes a debate over the nature of Free Will.
Ephesians 1:13: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation--having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Therefore, I suppose that a person cannot be in Christ until he first hears the gospel and believes in Christ “through” which we are made Born Again, as 1st Peter 1:23 states: “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.”
Adrian Rogers explains Illumination: “Spiritual blindness makes beggars of us all. ... The blind need more than light in order to see. ... I used to think, as a young preacher, that what you had to do to get people saved is just to tell them how to be saved. Just turn on the light. But it doesn’t matter how much light there is, or the person is blind because he cannot see it. It takes more than light, it takes sight. And a person who is blind cannot see the light, no matter how strong the light is or how pure the light is. It takes more than preaching to get people saved. That’s the reason I frequently say to you, I can preach truth, but only the Holy Spirit can impart truth. That is the reason why we must be a praying church. That’s the reason you must be a spirit filled soul winner. That is the reason that we must have the anointing, because we are dependent upon God to open blinded eyes to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It takes more than light, it takes takes sight. We need to understand that nobody can be argued into the kingdom of heaven. Nobody can be educated into the kingdom of heaven. I’m not against letting the light shine. You must let the let shine. You must preach. But remember, there is another dimension.” (Jesus is God’s Answer to Man’s Darkness: John 20:30, emphasis mine)
The Prevenient Grace of Illumination by the Holy Spirit upon the old heart is not the Regeneration that is alone reserved in Christ, which is the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5), that involves the new birth of receiving the new heart and the new spirit of being made Born Again as the new creature in Christ. (Ezekiel 36:26; 2nd Corinthians 5:17)
Calvinist, James White, explains: “When the time comes in God’s sovereign providence to bring to spiritual life each of those for whom Christ died, the Spirit of God will not only effectively accomplish that work of regeneration but that new creature in Christ will, unfailingly, believe in Jesus Christ (‘all that the Father gives Me will come to Me’). Hence, we are not saved ‘without’ faith, but at the same time, Christ’s atonement is not rendered useless and vain without the addition of libertarian free will.” (Debating Calvinism, p.191, emphasis mine)
So according to Calvinism, the engine that drives ‘unfailing repentance’ is the motor of a new heart, via regeneration, and since regeneration (part of being made Born Again) is alone reserved in Christ, it has no choice but to conclude that a person must first be in Christ before he can believe in Christ. Now how can we reconcile such a ridiculous thing as that? Because if unbelievers remain already condemned (John 3:18), while those in Christ are free from condemnation (Romans 8:1), then Calvinism has left us with a condemned unbeliever who is also secretly redeemed in Christ, and who will now unfailingly believe and become saved. It sounds like the Calvinist formula has carved out a formula in which the Calvinistically elect are outwardly condemned while inwardly redeemed, and then conversion straightens it all out.
White responds: “Dave Hunt is actually defending the idea that a man with a heart of stone can choose to remove that heart and implant a heart of flesh in its place and that he possesses the capacity to perform this operation on himself.” (Debating Calvinism, p.297, emphasis mine)
First of all, only God can make us into a new creature with a regenerated, new heart. Man merely responds to the divine pressure, through the testimony of the “faith” producing Gospel. (Romans 10:17) When a person does receive Christ, he is then “sealed” in Christ with the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13) Becoming sealed in Christ (after believing in the Gospel), is the gateway to the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5) and the gateway to the renewing of the mind for the new creature (2nd Corinthians 5:17), when the Holy Spirit removes the old heart, and gives us a new heart and a new spirit in the regenerative new birth as the new creature.
In terms of the Prevenient Grace of Illumination, Jesus states concerning the Holy Spirit: “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8)Thus, the operation of the Holy Spirit upon the old heart of the unregenerate sinner makes him aware of his need, though without being Regeneration. Conviction comes about through hearing the message of the cross (applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit), and that forgiveness is applied upon repentance, and regeneration only comes as the Holy Spirit enters the now clean heart and life, such that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
White explains: “While unregenerate men may know the facts of the gospel, they have no desire to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and cast themselves solely upon Him.” (Debating Calvinism, p.297, emphasis mine)
Where then does the “desire” come from? According to Calvinism, the answer is from the Holy Spirit, and Arminians fully agree. However, Calvinists insist that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just compel or woo, but secretly swaps hearts like changing engines in a car:
White explains: “It requires the work of the Spirit to take out their stony hearts and give them hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).” (Debating Calvinism, p.297, emphasis mine)
Whether this occurs is not the question. The question is when does this occur? Does it occur preemptively and secretly, as Calvinism teaches? Or does it occur when someone is sealed in Christ, according to Ephesians 1:13? The apostle Paul likely had Ezekiel 36:26 in mind when he wrote 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which states: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” This verse plainly answers the question of when. God exchanges the stony old heart with the fleshly new heart when you become “in Christ,” when after having believed in the Gospel, you were “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” (Ephesians 1:13)
White asks: “Can dead rebel sinners exercise saving faith to cause their own spiritual birth?” (Debating Calvinism, pp.293-294, emphasis mine)
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians answers: “White has a unique ability to cloud issues, seemingly willfully. Of course it is not within human capacity to regenerate ourselves, but that says nothing about whether or not there is a condition on our part through which God saves us, namely, faith.” (SEA, emphasis mine)
Whether faith can cause spiritual rebirth, is like asking whether faith can cause eternal life. Take John 3:16, for instance, which states: “‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’” Does faith cause eternal life, or is eternal life the consequence of faith, such that eternal life is what God the Father gives to the believer? Similarly, does faith cause the regeneration of new birth, or is regeneration the consequence of faith, such that the new birth is what God the Father gives to the believer? Since the Holy Spirit is the One who regenerates, is there a verse in the Bible which says that the Holy Spirit is given only after faith in Christ? Besides Ephesians 1:13, also consider Galatians 3:2 and John 5:24:
Galatians 3:2: “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”
John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
Whenever the Calvinists refer to man as “dead rebel sinners,” remind them that whereas man is dead, the Gospel is living (Hebrews 4:12), and produces faith. (Romans 10:17)
Arminians hold that Regeneration comes after faith, not preceding it, because regeneration is part of salvation. Calvinism holds that regeneration is not salvation, but only a step towards salvation, as a vehicle for salvation when the new birth instills faith.
Calvinist, James White, concludes: “I just know that no man will do it unless and until the miracle of regeneration takes place first.” (Debating Calvinism, p.305, emphasis mine)
Either you can place your trust in what Calvinists claim to “just know,” or you can place your trust in what the Bible explicitly says, because the two, evidently, are not the same.
Sometimes Calvinists inadvertently use window-dressing in order to disguise their teachings on preemptive establishment in Christ, in order to give it a biblical appearance. Here are two examples, and then I’ll elaborate further:
Calvinist, Erwin Lutzer, writes: “The corruption of sin extends to his mind as well as his will; consequently, no one seeks God. Because man is dead in trespasses and sins, God must regenerate him and even grant him the faith to believe.” (The Doctrines That Divide, pp.179-180, emphasis mine)
Calvinist, John MacArthur, writes: “I’m a Christian today because before the foundation of the world from all eternity past, God chose to set His love on John MacArthur and to give him the faith to believe at the moment that God wanted him to believe. He chose us.” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)
Aside from MacArthur’s misquote of Ephesians 1:4, which removes in Christ from the verse, you can see a pattern forming between Lutzer and MacArthur, in terms of God graciously giving the faith to believe. And what Bible-believer would disagree with God giving faith? The Bible says that God gives “faith” through the hearing of the Gospel, without suggesting that it is only given to certain people. (Romans 10:17) However, simply giving faith does not render a decision irresistible, which is precisely why Calvinism requires something more, namely, a new heart, in order to maintain Irresistible Grace. Therefore, both Lutzer and MacArthur would have been more forthright if they had instead stated:
“Because man is dead in trespasses and sins, God must [place him in Christ] to believe.” (The Doctrines That Divide, p.180, emphasis mine)
“...God chose to set His love on John MacArthur and to give him [a new heart] to believe....” (Understanding Election, emphasis mine)
That’s what Calvinists really mean, and yet they choose to disguise it. Calvinists frequently complain that they are misrepresented, and yet the real problem is that Calvinists often fail to represent Calvinism, and hence the confusion. I’ve often complained that Calvinists have never spoken with clarity on the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election because they refuse to explicitly teach it from the perspective of an in the Father election. Instead, they want to talk about grace and sovereignty, but what Bible-believer would disagree with that? Hence, many Calvinists, while disguising Calvinism in order to portray it as biblical, only end up confusing others when they attempt to interpret them. Calvinists can often become their own worst enemy when they prefer to play word games instead of speaking frankly. If you believe that you are a Christian today only because God preemptively and unconsciously placed you in Christ, and gave you a new heart to believe, then why tell others that it’s because God gave you the faith to believe? Why play games? If you believe that you are in Christ today, only because you were first, eternally hidden in the Father, why not just say so?