The Ordo Salutis: Regeneration

Perhaps the most thorough definition of regeneration came from the pen of Herman Witsius, the 17th century Dutch theologian, in his work, The Economy of the Covenants: “Regeneration is that supernatural act of God whereby a new and divine life is infused into the elect person, spiritually dead, and that from incorruptible seed of the word of God, made fruitful by the infinite power of the Spirit.”

I think he has covered every base, maybe even the pitcher’s mound!

In this lesson on the ordo salutis we will follow Witsius, and run through the essential truths of regeneration, a necessary work of God in the application of Christ’s accomplishments.

First, regeneration is a supernatural act of God.

In his letter to the Ephesians, our apostle says: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ….” (Eph. 2:4-5).

Regeneration is the act of being made alive. Without it we remain dead in our sin. Thus, regeneration is an instantaneous act. There is no slow way out of death. You are either in or out of it. By regeneration we are, in a moment, brought from spiritual death into newness of life, the eternal life, which belongs to, and is mediated by, our blessed Lord Jesus.

This act of regeneration upon the nature of man is performed by God alone. It is monergistic. The work of one. Man does not cooperate. Indeed he cannot, for sinful man is dead in his trespasses, not only under condemnation, but in bondage to the corruption of a fallen nature. What can the dead do to prepare themselves for life? No more than a child can do to will he or she be conceived. New spiritual life is all of God. It is both irresistible and irrevocable.

Second, regeneration is the infusion of divine life.

Jesus says in John 5:21, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” A few verses later he says, “[the Father] has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26).

The act of regeneration is not a drawing out of man something which was always lying within man, dormant, falling short of its potential. No. Regeneration puts life, the divine life, within each elect soul, who were spiritually dead. And this life, which comes from outside of man, is Christ’s own eternal life.

John Gill once said, so beautifully, in speaking of Christ: “he is the matter of it, it is not so much the quickened persons that live, as Christ that lives in them, and it is the same life he himself lives, and because he lives, they shall live also; it is in him as in the fountain, and in them as in the stream.”

Christ, of course, secured his prerogative to give his life to whom he will by being man’s mediator in his death and resurrection. Charles Hodge was right then to say: “Regeneration, therefore, is a spiritual resurrection.” Christ alone is the resurrection and the life (Jn. 11:25-26), and so he himself is the divine life of our regeneration, given suddenly, yet mysteriously, even quietly.

Third, regeneration is ordinarily by the instrumentality of God’s word.

In his first letter to us, Peter says: “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). This word, Peter makes clear at verse 25, is “the good news that was preached to you.”

When God acts to regenerate the elect, he will ordinarily use the word. The word is not the efficient cause, the Holy Spirit is, but the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration. This is why James says: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth,….” (James 1:18). And in Acts 16:14, when the Lord called Lydia from death into life, both causes were present but differentiated: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” 

The instrumentality of God’s word in regeneration caused Anthony Burgess (1600-1663) to say: “Oh, therefore how careful should people be both to get and to live under the preaching of God’s Word! This is the wind that must make dry bones live: This is the voice of a trump, that must make the dead come out of the grave. How mean, impotent, contemptible, men may esteem it, yet God hath appointed no other means to convey supernatural life, but after this manner”

But let us understand, regeneration is not our reward for going to hear the word. Such a transactional impulse, an ex opera operato approach toward any means of grace, darkens minds and destroys souls. Regeneration is sola gratia, by grace alone. It is cause for both eternal praises and enduring prayers in humble contemplation of the mercies of God.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.