Volume Twenty-Seven — Article 3 Volume 27 | Home

The Order of Justification and Regeneration

Editorial Note: We here reprint a statement sent to us in 1973 by the respected evangelical and Reformed scholar, Gordon H. Clark. It was published in the "Letters" section of our previous issue of Present Truth Magazine together with a brief editorial comment which we made at that time. This editorial comment is also reprinted here at the conclusion of Dr. Clark's statement.

Remarks on Justification and Regeneration
Gordon H. Clark

The special issue of Present Truth Magazine devoted to discussions of "Justification by Faith" is the first copy of the magazine that I have seen. Its emphasis on the "material principle" of the Reformation and its opposition to Romish theology speak clearly to these times when the Protestant churches have largely rejected the Bible.

Among the magazine's excellent pages, however, there was one article — so it seems to me — that did not properly represent the historic Protestant view. On page 18 Rome is characterized by the phrase, "Regeneration — a necessary condition for justification," and the Reformation is characterized by the phrase, "Regeneration — the immediate consequence and fruit of justification." With respect to this latter phrase there are two points to be considered: (1) the article's argument from the Bible is incomplete and in places fallacious, and (2) the historical evidence necessary to conclude that the theology of the Reformation is in view is missing.

On the first point I shall try to be brief. Page 18, column 2, after quoting Romans 4:5 that God justifies the ungodly, says, "This scripture certainly contradicts the notion that God justifies only regenerate saints." The paragraph fails to show any contradiction. The following paragraph correctly states that God justifies the uncircumcised; but Romans 4:9-11 (quoted) does not mention regeneration, as would be necessary for a conclusion about regeneration; and the appended explanation, which says that "the new life is the sign and witness of the blessing of justification," does not reproduce the thought of the passage from Romans, for the scripture says that circumcision (not the new life or regeneration) is the sign. Page 19, point 4, adds to Romans 5 something about a "new heart," which is not found in the text. Finally, so far as Scripture and argument go, page 19, column 2, says, "To those who respond to His drawing, the Spirit gives faith and repentance." Is this not Romanism? An unregenerate sinner, totally depraved, dead in sin, who does not seek God, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, who has no fear of God before his eyes, cannot respond. He will become able to respond only after the Spirit resurrects him to newness of life.

The second point is the absence of evidence that Reformation theology makes faith prior to regeneration. The only attempt to provide evidence is a quotation from John Wesley on page 21. But John Wesley was a disciple of Arminius, whose rejection of the Reformation doctrines was declared heretical by the Synod of Dort in 1620. Therefore Wesley's theology is not a competent testimony to what the Reformers taught.

One of the best witnesses of what the Reformation taught is the Westminster Confession of 1645-49. Its reliability is such that thousands of ministers from that day to this have subscribed to it. The men who framed it were the most devoted ministers of their day, the most competent and the best informed on the theology of the previous century. The Westminster Confession, X, 1, 2, states, "God . . . enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God . . . renewing their wills . . . effectually drawing them . . . they being made willing by his grace . . . [are] enabled to answer this call and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it."

To which I should like to add John 5:24: "He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come into judgment, but has [already (perfect tense)] passed from death to life." Note that when the sinner hears and believes, i.e., exercises faith, he has already been regenerated.

Further evidence that this is the Reformation view and that the theologians who remained true to the Scripture so testify will be found in W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, page 509: "A man is not regenerated because he first believes in Christ, but he believes in Christ because he has been regenerated." The whole chapter defends this position.

Similar thoughts are found in H.B. Smith, System of Christian Theology, page 557, and even in the wavering theologian, Augustus Strong, Volume 3, page 825.

Then finally, Charles Hodge, the prince of American theologians, in successive chapters, discusses regeneration in Volume 2, chapter 14, and in Volume 3, chapter 15. Faith comes in chapter 16; and chapter 17 continues with justification. It is clear, therefore, that the article herein discussed does not correctly describe the Reformation position as against Romanism.

Editorial Comments

Thank you, professor, for your stimulating comments. We are aware that some later Calvinists have tended to place regeneration before justification. As for Calvin, he declared, ". . . justifying grace is not separate from regeneration although these are distinct things. —Institutes, Bk. 4, chap. 2, sec. 2. In fact, in a certain passage in the Consensus Tigurinus, Calvin very decisively places justification before regeneration, not in temporal but in logical sequence. He writes, "Dum fide inserti in Christi corpus, idque spiritus sancti virtute, primum iusti censemur gratuitae iustitiae imputatione, de inde regeneramur in novam vitam."—Cited by Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, tr. Philip Mairet (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p.256.

A further comment: Surely you are not unaware that the whole Lutheran stream of the Reformation very decidedly places justification before regeneration. The Formula of Concord distinctly says that "the renewal . . . follows justification" and "succeeds the righteousness of faith" (see Book of Concord, p.253). John Wesley did not follow Luther on everything, but he certainly followed Luther on the order of salvation. We would like some Lutheran scholars to comment on this letter. —Ed.

Further Observations on the Order of Justification and Regeneration

All those who stand in the tradition of the Reformation believe that justification and regeneration are closely related and that one cannot and will not be present without the other. However, there has been some sharp disagreement as to their logical order, if not their temporal order.

There is no question about Calvin's placing justification before regeneration in the order of logic (see Institutes, Bk. 3, chap. 11, secs. 6,11). G.C. Berkouwer also acknowledges this in his Faith and Justification, pages 29, 30.

The systematic Calvinists of the seventeenth century, however, reversed Calvin's order and put regeneration before justification. This was the result of moving the doctrine of an arbitrary predestination to the center and starting point of their theological thinking.

There are several grave difficulties with this order of salvation:

1. It reduces the great regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to a secret act of divine grace which is subconscious in whom it is inwrought. Wesley's insistence on a very conscious experience of renewal by the Holy Spirit helped to correct the arid intellectualism and incipient antinomianism in this idea of a secret, subconscious regeneration.

2. It tends to elevate regeneration over justification.

3. It turns Paul's doctrine of the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5) into justification of the reborn. This is a Romanizing tendency and bears a remarkable resemblance to the decree of Trent which says that "if they [men] were not born again in Christ, they would never be justified" — "Decree Concerning Justification," chap. 3.

4. It has regenerating grace creating immediately —i.e., apart from the means of grace, which is the preached Word of God. According to the words of Jesus in John 3, the uplifting of Christ is the means of the new birth. Peter declares that the new birth is accomplished by the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23). The Holy Spirit comes to men only in and with (but not apart from) the preaching of the gospel. What is the justification, therefore, for saying that the Holy Spirit regenerates men even before and quite apart from hearing the gospel?

5. The claim that men already possess eternal life before they are justified (see Clark's comment on John 5:24) turns the work of justification by faith into an empty formality. Clearly, if a man is unjustified (i.e., prior to his justification), he is condemned, and the wrath of God abides on him until the moment he is justified in the verdict of the Judge. Justification itself is the verdict of life (see Rom. 5:18). In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon is quite right when he keeps referring to justification as "justification unto life eternal." John 5:24 is not saying that a man has eternal life before he hears and believes but that, as a believer, he will not come into judgment (condemnation at the last day) because he has already, by faith, passed from death unto life. Just as there is no personal justification without faith, so there is no personal salvation and possession of eternal life without faith. And there is no faith without hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Dr. Clark asks how it can be that dead men can hear the Word of God. But Jesus declares, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25). True, our Lord is speaking in the context of the physical resurrection, but even this illustrates the resurrection to spiritual life by the Word of God. Calvinism is to be faulted when it proposes that God's grace imparts eternal life apart from the means of grace in the preaching of the gospel. For further discussion on this matter of regeneration and human freedom, see the article, "The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation" (Part 3), in this issue of Present Truth Magazine. —Ed.