Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
~ Psalm 51:5, Psalm 139:15-16, Ephesians 2:5
Regeneration: The New Birth, by Herman Witsius. 1677. This is an excerpt from his work titled, “The Economy of the Covenant Between God and Man”.
Chapter VI: Of Regeneration
I. By that same word, whereby the elect are called to communion with God and his Christ, they are also regenerated to a far more excellent life. For thus James saith, 1:18, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.” It is therefore proper we proceed from the subject of effectual calling to that of Regeneration.
II. But here all things are deep, and wrapt up in mystery. Who can unfold to us the secrets of his own corporal birth? Who can distinctly declare in what manner he was poured out like milk, and curdled like cheese within the bowels of his mother. The prophet himself, as if he was seized with a holy amazement, cried out, “I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect,” Psa. 139:14–16. But if these things, which regard the origin of our body, and the beginnings of this animal life, are involved in such darkness as to frustrate the inquiries of the most sagacious; how much more involved are the things that constitute our spiritual regeneration, which none can doubt to be altogether mysterious.
III. But yet this is so necessary, that our Saviour declares, that without it there is no entering into the kingdom of heaven, John 3:3, 5. It therefore deserves to be inquired into; that, if we have perhaps attained to it, we may celebrate with becoming praises the glorious perfections of God our Father, which shine so conspicuously in this illustrious work, and properly valuing our happiness, we may frame the whole tenor of our lives in a manner suitable to it.
IV. We give this definition of it: Regeneration is that supernatural act of God, whereby a new and divine life is infused into the elect person, spiritually dead, and that from the incorruptible seed of the word of God, made fruitful by the infinite power of the Spirit.
V. We are “all dead in Adam,” 1 Cor. 15:22, through the poison of the tempting serpent. This “murderer from the beginning”, John 8:44, had such success attending his endeavours, that all men who now exist are by nature “dead in trespasses and sins”, Eph. 2:1. That is, 1st, They are separated at the greatest distance from God and his Spirit, who is the soul of their soul, and life of their life; or in the language of Paul, “alienated from the life of God”, Eph. 4:18. 2dly, They are spiritually insensible of all spiritual things, destitute of all true feeling: they do not rightly consider the load of their sins, because they are in them as in their element: nor have a right knowledge of their misery, “being past feeling,” Eph. 4:19, nor any relish for divine grace, because it has not yet been conferred upon them; nor any longing after heavenly things, being ignorant of their worth. 3dly, They are wholly incapable of every act of true life: “Not sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves,” 2 Cor. 3:5. The understanding is overspread with dismal darkness, Eph. 4:18; “hath not set God before it,” Psa. 86:14; “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, neither can it know them,” 1 Cor. 2:14; the will has no tendency to things unknown: and thus all the things of God are despised by it as mean. And if at times it seem to perform any things that have some appearance of vital actions, this proceeds not from a principle of life, but resembles those automatical or artificial motions, by which statues, ingeniously framed, counterfeit living animals.
VI. But as a dead carcass swarms with vermin, arising from putrefaction, in which the briskest life is observed, though of another order and kind from that life which was formerly in that body; so, in like manner, there is a kind of life in a man spiritually dead, but it is carnal, hellish, and diabolical, at the greatest distance from true life, and the more vigorous it is, it gives the more evident signs of the most deplorable death. The apostle has elegantly joined this death and life; Eph. 2:1, 2, “When ye were dead in trespasses and sins ye walked in them, as is the life of this world:” so Beza translates. In the Greek it runs, κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα του κοσμου τουτου. Philo., in Alleg., lib. i., defines this death well: “When the soul is dead as to virtue, it lives the life of vice.” Not unlike to what Macarius says, Homil. 12, “When Adam began to entertain evil thoughts and devices, he perished as to God: we say not he perished altogether, was destroyed and quite dead; but that, though as to God he was dead, yet he was alive as to his own nature.” What Macarius affirms of Adam is universally true of all; for in a man spiritually dead, there is really a natural or animal life, which, though not active in that which is good, is doubly active in that which is evil. The understanding, not apprehending the wisdom of God, looks upon it as foolishness, 1 Cor. 2:14; and yet, when it would find wisdom in the things of God, it so transforms them by its mad presumption, and compels them, even against their nature, to a conformity to the notions of its trifling presumptuous self-wisdom, that while it impiously presumes to correct the wisdom of God, it transforms it in a dreadful manner into downright folly. The will, not finding any thing in God wherewith it can take delight, seeks it either in the creatures without God, or, which is more abominable, in the very perpetration of wickedness. The affections, shaking off the reins of reason, rush on in full career. The body, with all its members, is the throne of mad and furious lusts. And the whole man, being so averse from God, and infatuated with the fond love of himself, sets himself up for an idol, makes his own advantage his supreme end; his own pleasure, his most infallible law. This is the life of the soul, which “is dead while living”, 1 Tim. 5:6.
VII. And thus it is with the elect before regeneration: but by regeneration a new life is put into them, resulting from a gracious union with God and his Spirit. For what the soul is to the body, that God is to the soul. Moreover, this spiritual life may be considered, either by way of faculty, and in the first act, in the usual language of the schools; or by way of operation, and in the second act. In the former respect, it is that inward constitution of the soul whereby it is fitted to exert those actions which are acceptable to God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit uniting it to God: whether such actions immediately flow from that principle, or whether they lie concealed for some time as fruits in their seed. In the latter respect, it is that activity of the living soul by which it acts agreeably to the command of God, and the example of Christ.
VIII. If we consider this first principle of life, there is not the least doubt but regeneration is accomplished in a moment. For there is no delay in the transition from death to life. No person can be regenerated so long as he is in the state of spiritual death: but in the instant he begins to live, he is born again. Wherefore no intermediate state between the regenerate and unregenerate can be imagined so much as in thought, if we mean regeneration in the first act; for one is either dead or alive; has either the Spirit of the flesh and the world, or the Spirit of God actuating him; is either in the state of grace or in the state of malediction; either the child of God or of the devil; either in the way to salvation or damnation. There neither is nor can be any medium here. The Holy Scripture divides all mankind into two classes—”sheep and goats,” Matt. 25:2, 3; and compares their goings to two ways; whereof the one, which is broad, leads to destruction; the other, which is narrow, to life, Matt. 7:13, 14; and there is no one who does not tread in one or other of these ways. And what if he, whom some imagine to be in an intermediate state, should depart this animal life before he be fully brought to the spiritual life, would such a one be received into heaven? But heaven is open only to the actually regenerate, John 3:3. Or would he be thrust into hell? But hell is allotted only for the goats, and for those who, all their life long, have walked in the broad way. Or perhaps such will be received into some intermediate place, where, being free from the pains of hell and deprived of the joys of heaven, they will delight themselves in I know not what degree of natural happiness? As some popish doctors, discoursing in the council of Trent, of infants dying without baptism, pleased themselves with these fond sportings of their imagination, which the author of the history of that council, lib. ii. p. 157, has not dismissed without a good deal of acrimony and sharpness. Or you will say, perhaps, it is a case which never happens that any one should die in that intermediate state. But produce me the vouchers of such an assertion, whereby security is given to those in this intermediate class, of retaining their lives till they shall have declared of what class they choose to be. I do not remember to have read any thing on that head in Scripture. And if that intermediate state has such an indissolvable connexion with salvation, it will be no longer intermediate, but a state of grace. For it is grace alone to which the attainment of glory is infallibly assigned. I own there are various degrees of regeneration in the second act; and that the seed of it sometimes lies hid under the earth, or at most, exerts some slender and initial, and, as it were, infantile operations, differing very much with respect to perfection from those which a more advanced spirit of sanctification produces; yet seeing the former also have their rise from the fountain of the new life, it is plain that they who exert them are to be ranked among the regenerate. For we must say one of these two things; either that these operations ascribed to the intermediate state proceed from the powers of nature and common grace; and thus there is nothing in them which may not be found in the reprobate, and those entirely unregenerate; or that they proceed from the indwelling Spirit of grace, and so are effects of regeneration, to which the beginnings of the new life are owing.
IX. Hence it appears, there are no preparations antecedent to the first beginning of regeneration; because, previous to that, nothing but mere death in the highest degree is to be found in the person to be regenerated. “When we were dead in sins, he hath quickened us together with Christ,” Eph. 2:5. And indeed the Scripture represents man’s conversion by such similitudes, as show that all preparations are entirely excluded; sometimes calling it a new generation, to which, certainly, none can contribute any thing of himself; but yet, as natural generation presupposes some dispositions in the matter, so that we may not imagine any such thing to be in ourselves but from God, we have this held forth by the similitude of a resurrection; in which a body is restored from matter, prepared by no qualifications: yet because here certainly is matter, but in the resurrection of the soul there is nothing at all, therefore we have added the figure of a creation, Psa. 51:10, Eph. 2:10; by which we are taught that a new creature exists from a spiritual nothing, which is sin: but as there was not something in nothing to assist and sustain creation, so there was nothing to oppose and resist; but sin is so far from submitting to what God does, that it is reluctant thereto, and in a hostile manner at enmity with him; accordingly, the other images did not fully complete the idea of this admirable action, till at length it is called the victory of God—victory, I say, over the devil, who maintains his palace, Luke 11:21, and effectually worketh “in the children of disobedience,” Eph. 2:2. All these operations of God, which Alexander Moore has, in an elegant order, ranged one after another, de Victoria Gratiæ, Diss. 1, Thess. 10, tend to exclude, as far as possible, all preparations from the beginning of our regeneration.
X. The semi-pelagians, therefore, of Marseilles were mistaken, who insisted, that a man comes to the grace, whereby we are regenerated in Christ, by a natural faculty, as by asking, seeking, knocking; and that, in some at least, before they are born again, there is a kind of repentance going before, together with a sorrow for sin, and a change of the life for the better, and a beginning of faith, and an initial love of God, and a desire of grace; it is true, they did not look on these endeavours to be of such importance as that it would be said, we were thereby rendered worthy of the grace of the Holy Spirit, as Pelagius and Julian professed; but yet they imagined, they were an occasion by which God was moved to bestow his grace; for they said, that the mercy of God is such, that he recompenses this very small beginning of good with this illustrious reward; as Vossius, Hist. Pelag. lib. iv. p. 1, Thess. 1, has refined this their opinion. The Remonstrants are likewise mistaken, in Collatione Hagiensi, editionis Brandianæ, p. 302, when they write, “Some work of man, therefore, goes before his vivification; namely, to acknowledge and bewail his death, to will and desire deliverance from it; to hunger, thirst, and seek after life; all which, and a great deal besides, is required by Christ in those whom he will make alive.” But there is little accuracy in the reasonings of these men. For, 1st, Since our nature is become, after having eaten of the forbidden fruit, like an evil tree, it can produce no fruit truly good and acceptable to God, and do nothing by which it can prepare itself for the grace of regeneration, unless a person can be thought to prepare himself for grace by sin. 2dly, It has been found, that they who in appearance were in the best manner disposed for regeneration, were yet at the greatest distance from it, as the instance of that young man, Matt. 19:21, 22, very plainly shows. He appeared to be full of good intentions, and inflamed with a desire after heaven, and a blameless life before men, to a degree, that Jesus himself, beholding him, loved him; but notwithstanding all these dispositions, he parted with our Lord sorrowful. 3dly, And on the other hand, they who had not even the least appearance of any preparation, as the publicans and harlots, went into the kingdom of God before those who were civilly righteous and externally religious; “for these last believed not John, declaring the way of righteousness; but the publicans and the harlots truly believed,” Matt. 21:31, 32. 4thly and lastly, God testifies, that in the first approach of his grace, “he is found of them, that sought him not, and asked not for him,” Isa. 65:1, Fulgentius, lib. i., de veritat. prædest. p. 62, says extremely well: “We have not certainly received grace, because we are willing; but grace is given us, while we are still unwilling.”
XI. There have been likewise some among ourselves, who have spoken of preparations to regeneration or conversion, but in a quite different sense from the favourers of Pelagianism. In persons to be regenerated they have assigned, 1st, A breaking of the natural obstinacy and a flexibility of the will. 2dly, A serious consideration of the law. 3dly, A consideration of their own sins and offences against God. 4thly, A legal fear of punishment and a dread of hell, and consequently a despairing of their salvation, with respect to any thing in themselves. For in this order, Perkins, Cas. Conscient. c. v. quæst. 1, sect. 1, reckons up these preparations; and Ames, in the same manner, Cas. Conscient. lib. ii. c. iv. And the British divines explained themselves almost to the same purpose in the synod of Dort, p. 139, of the Utrecht edition, 1620, folio, “1st, There are some external works ordinarily required of men before they are brought to a state of regeneration or conversion, which are wont sometimes to be freely done, sometimes freely omitted by them, as going to church, hearing the word preached, and the like. 2dly, There are some internal effects, previous to conversion or regeneration, excited by the power of the word and Spirit in the hearts of those who are not yet justified; as the knowledge of the will of God, sense of sin, dread of punishment, anxiety about deliverance, some hope of pardon.” But they differ from the favourers of Pelagianism in this manner: 1st, That they are not for having these things to proceed from nature, but profess them to be the effects of the spirit of bondage, preparing a way to himself for their actual regeneration. 2dly, That they are not for God’s bestowing the grace of regeneration from a regard to, and moved by occasion of, these preparations, much less by any merit in them; but they imagine, that God in this manner levels a way for himself, fills up vallies, depresses mountains and hills, in order the better to smooth the way for his entrance into that soul. Nay, the British divines add, Thess. vi.: “That even the elect themselves never behave in these acts preceding regeneration, in such a manner, as that, on account of their negligence and resistance, they may not justly be abandoned and forsaken of God.” Yet they call them rather preparations for grace, than the fruits and effects of grace; because they think, that even the reprobate may go as far as this; and they affirm, “that these antecedent effects, produced by the power of the word and Spirit in the minds of men, may be, and in many usually are, stifled and entirely extinguished through the fault of the rebellious will,” Ibid. Thess. v. But we really think they argue more accurately, who make these and the like things in the elect, to be preparations to the further and more perfect operations of a more noble and plentiful spirit, and so not preparations for regeneration, but the fruits and effects of the first regeneration: for as these things suppose some life of the soul, which spiritually attends to spiritual things, and are operations of the Spirit of God when going about to sanctify the elect, we cannot but refer them to the Spirit of grace and regeneration. Nor is it any objection, that the like, or the same may be also said to be in reprobates, for they are only the same materially, but not formally. Reprobates also have some knowledge of Christ, some taste of the grace of God, and of the powers of the world to come. Yet it does not follow, that the knowledge of Christ as it is in believers, and that relish of grace and glory they have, is not the gift of the Spirit of grace and of glory. And, indeed, the things mentioned by Perkins, and the other British divines, are no preparations for regeneration in the reprobate, either from the nature of the thing, or the intention of God. Not the former, for however great these things may appear to be, yet they are consistent with spiritual death; and the reprobate are so far from being disposed thereby to a spiritual life, that, on the contrary, deceived by those actings which counterfeit spiritual life, they are the more hardened in a real death, and fondly pleasing themselves, are at a greater distance from inquiring after true life, which they falsely imagine they have obtained. Not the latter, for no intention of God can be rendered void. It is therefore necessary, that all these things be in another manner in the elect, than in the reprobate.
XII. If this matter be more closely considered, we shall find that the orthodox differ more in words, and in the manner of explaining, than in sense and reality. For the term regeneration is of ambiguous signification; sometimes it is blended with sanctification, and by regeneration is understood that action of God, whereby man, who is now become the friend of God, and endowed with spiritual life, acts in a righteous and holy manner from infused habits. And then it is certain, there are some effects of the Spirit, by which he usually prepares them for the actings of complete faith and holiness; for a knowledge of divine truths, a sense of misery, sorrow for sin, hope of pardon, &c. go before any one can fiducially lay hold on Christ, and apply himself to the practice of true godliness. God does not usually sanctify a man all at once, before ever he has had any thought about himself and God, and any concern about his salvation. And this is what the British divines seem to have intended, when, in Confirmatione Secundæ Theseos, they thus speak: “Divine grace does not usually bring men to a state of justification, in which we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by a sudden enthusiasm, but first subdues and prepares them by many previous acts by the ministry of the word.” By which words they sufficiently show, that, by regeneration, they mean the state of passive justification. But sometimes regeneration denotes the first translation of a man from a state of death to a state of spiritual life; in which sense we take it. And in that respect none of the orthodox, if he will speak consistently with his own principles, can suppose preparatory works to the grace of regeneration. For, either he would maintain, that these works proceeded from nature; and so, by the confession of all the orthodox, are but dead works and splendid sins. But none in his right mind will affirm, that any can be disposed for the grace of regeneration, by those things which are sinful. Or he would maintain, that these works proceeded from the Spirit of God. But if thus far he does not operate in another manner in the elect, than in the reprobate; these works, notwithstanding this his operation, may be reckoned among dead works, for the orthodox look upon all the actions of the reprobate to be sinful, let them be ever so much elevated by divine assistance. Thus the British divines, l. c. p. 143: “An evil tree, which naturally brings forth evil fruit, must itself be first changed to a good tree before ever it can yield any good fruit. But the will of an unregenerate person is not only an evil, but also a dead tree.” I now infer, the reprobate are never regenerated, and therefore continue evil trees, without ever producing any other than bad fruit. And so there can be no preparation in such works for regeneration, for the reason above explained. If you say, that these works which you call preparatory, are different in the elect, I ask, in what respect? No other answer can be given but this, that they proceed from the spirit of grace and life; right: but then they are not preparations for the first regeneration, but effects of it; for regeneration is the first approach of the spirit of grace and life, effectually working in the elect.
XIII. You will say then, are there no preparatory dispositions to the first regeneration? I confidently answer, there are none; and agree with Fulgentius, de Incarnat. et Gratia Christi, c. xix.: “With respect to the birth of a child, the work of God is previous to any will of the person that comes into the world; so also in the spiritual birth, whereby we begin to put off the old man.” I own, indeed, spiritual death has its degrees, but with a distinction; what is privative therein, or what it is destitute of, namely, the want of the life of God, is equal or alike in all, and in this respect there are no degrees less or more. But what is possible, or as it were positive therein, namely, those evil habits, these indeed are very unequal. In infants there are only those evil habits which come into the world with them: in the adult there are others, contracted and deeply rooted by many vicious acts and a course of wickedness. These again greatly differ, according as by the secret dispensation of God’s providence, the affections of men are more or less restrained; for, though every kind of wickedness, like a certain hydra, lurks in the heart of all, yet God suffers some to give loose reins to their vices, and to be hurried on, as by so many furies; while he moves others with a sense of shame, and a reverence for the laws, and some kind of love to honour and honesty; who, in that respect, may be said not to be at such a distance from sanctifying grace as they who are guilty of horrid crimes, which are more opposite thereto than a civil and external honesty of life. But yet, whatever length any before regeneration has advanced in that honesty, he nevertheless remains in the confines of death in which there is no preparation for life.
XIV. Nor do we agree with those, who so inconsiderately assert, that man is no more disposed for regeneration than a stone, or an irrational animal. For there are naturally such faculties in the soul of man, as render him a fit subject of regeneration, which are not to be found in stones or brutes. Thus a man can be regenerated, but a brute or a stone cannot. In that sense Augustine, de Predest. sanct. c. 5, said, “the capacity of having faith and love is of the nature of man; but to have them, of the grace of believers.” Vossius has proved by proper arguments, that this is to be understood, not of the proximate, but remote capacity, in so far as man has naturally those faculties, in which faith and love may be wrought; Histor. Pelag. lib. 4. P. I. p. 418.
XV. But we must not here omit, that the elect, before their actual regeneration, are honoured by God with various, and those indeed very excellent privileges above the reprobate, which are intended, according to the purpose of God, to be subservient for promoting their regeneration, in his appointed time. For as God has a love of special benevolence for them, according to the degree of election; and they are redeemed by Christ, and in a state of reconciliation with God, and of justification, actively taken; it follows: 1st, That God often preserves them from those base and scandalous crimes, which are repugnant to common humanity, and that by some assistance of light, of divinity, of conscience, and civil honesty, with an accession of some grace operating internally, and laying a restraint on the wickedness of their nature. 2dly, That all and every one of them, who are brought to the acknowledgment and the common illumination of the truth of the Gospel, are kept from the sin against the Holy Ghost. 3dly, That, by the ministry of the word, and other operations of God’s special providence towards them, many evident principles of divine truth are understood by the natural mind, and also imprinted on the natural memory, the meditation of which, immediately after they are regenerated, conduces very much to the confirmation of their faith. And thus, without knowing it, they have collected a very valuable treasure, the excellence and genuine use of which they come not to see, till they are born again. But as these things do not, of their own nature, dispose man for regeneration, though, by the appointment of God, they are so disposed, as that regeneration is certainly to follow, they cannot but very remotely be called preparations, and they will be such more from the intention of God, than from the virtue of the thing.
XVI. Now after a principle of spiritual life is infused into the elect soul by regeneration, divine grace does not always proceed therein in the same method and order. It is possible, that for some time, the spirit of the life of Christ may lie, as it were, dormant in some (almost in the same manner as vegetative life in the seed of a plant, or sensitive life in the seed of an animal, or a poetical genius in one born a poet), so as that no vital operations can yet proceed there-from, though savingly united to Christ, the fountain of true life, by the Spirit. This is the case with respect to elect and regenerate infants, whose is the kingdom of God, and who therefore are reckoned among believers and saints, though unqualified through age actually to believe and practise godliness.
XVII. Moreover, this spirit of a new life will even sometimes exert itself in vital actions, in those who have received it in their infancy, as they gradually advance in years, and are qualified to raise their thoughts above the objects of sense. Accordingly it has often been observed, that, in children of five or six years of age, some small sparks of piety and devotion have shone forth in holy longings, ardent little prayers, and in a certain extraordinary tenderness of conscience, not daring to do any thing with respect to God, themselves, or their neighbour, which they have been taught to be displeasing to God: as also it appears in their discourses concerning God and Christ, which have been full of a holy and unfeigned love and breathing, of a heavenly nature, which I have not words to express. Thus sometimes God is pleased, “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings to ordain strength.” Psa. 8:2. This has been especially observed in some dying children, to the great astonishment of all present.
XVIII. But when the foundation is laid, divine grace does not always grow up in the same manner. It often happens, that this principle of spiritual life, which had discovered its activity in the most tender childhood, according to, and sometimes above, the age of the person, God, in his singular grace, preceding the full maturity of the natural faculties, grows up by degrees with the person, after the example of our Lord, who “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man,” Luke 2:52; and of John the Baptist, who “grew and waxed strong in spirit.” Luke 1:80. Such persons make continual progress in the way of sanctification, and grow insensibly “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Eph. 4:13. We have an illustrious example of this in Timothy, “who from a child had known the Holy Scriptures,” 2 Tim. 3:15; and who, in his tender youth, to Paul’s exceeding joy, had given evident signs of an unfeigned faith, with tears of the most tender piety bursting out at times, 2 Tim. 1:4, 5.
XIX. On the other hand, sometimes these sparks of piety, especially which more sparingly shone forth in childhood, when in a manner covered with the ashes of worldly vanities, and carnal pleasures of youth, will appear to be almost extinguished. The allurements of the deceitful flesh, and the sorceries of a tempting world, assaulting the unadvised unwary heart with its deceitful pleasures, almost stifle those small beginnings of piety; and for months, sometimes for years together, so violently overpower them, that all their attempts against them seem to be in vain. Yet there are still, in these persons, remorses of conscience, awakening them at times, languid resolutions, and vanishing purposes, of reforming their lives, till, by the infinite efficacy of divine grace, insinuating into the languid and decaying breast, they awake as from a deep sleep, and, with the greatest sorrow for their past life, and utmost seriousness, apply to the careful practice of piety; the warmth of their zeal then breaks forth, being exceedingly desirous to show, by brighter flames, its having been unwillingly kept smothered under the ashes. Augustine has given us, in his own person, a representation of this state, in the excellent book of his confessions.
XX. But the elect are not all favoured with regenerating grace in their infancy. There are some adult persons whom God regenerates, and at once effectually calls, and converts, in the second act, from a worldly and hypocritical condition, or even from a state of profligate wickedness. Thus it is with those, who are born and brought up without God’s covenant, or even of those, who, living where this covenant is dispensed, have sold themselves wholly to sin, Satan, and the world. The regeneration of these is usually followed with great consternation of soul, and sorrow for sin, with a dread of God’s fiery indignation, and incredible desires after grace, together with an inexpressible joy, upon finding salvation in Jesus, and a wonderful alacrity in the service of the Lord, which they can scarcely contain. All this may be observed in the jailer, of whom we read, Acts 16.
XXI. On this depends the solution of that question, whether we are to look upon any as born again, but those who can specify the time, manner, and progress of their regeneration. None, indeed, are here to be flattered, or soothed, as to think it lawful for them securely to presume on their regeneration: but then the consciences of believers are not to be racked with too severe a scrupulosity. We cannot determine this point without a distinction: we have just shown, that the progress of regeneration is various. Adult persons, who are brought altogether from a carnal to a spiritual life, indeed may, and ought exactly to know the beginning and manner of so great a change. They who, though regenerated in infancy, have yet been carried away by the entanglements of the world, and for some time have struggled, as it were, with destruction, but afterwards have been roused by the grace of God, made to renounce the world, and give themselves wholly to piety, such as we described, sect. 17, may, and it is their duty to recollect, not so much the beginning of their very first regeneration, as the process of that actual and thorough conversion. But it would be wrong to require those, who being regenerated in their infancy, have grown up all along with the quickening Spirit, to declare the time and manner of their passage from death to life. It is sufficient, if they can comfort themselves, and edify others, with the fruits of regeneration, and the constant tenor of a pious life. It is, however, the duty of all to recollect, not in a careless manner, the operations of the Spirit of grace on their hearts; which is highly useful, both for our glorifying God, and for our own comfort and excitement to every duty.
XXII. There cannot be the least doubt of God’s being the author of our regeneration. For we become his sons by regeneration, being born of God, John 1:12. And even in this respect, the sons of God by grace, bear some resemblance to him, who is the Son of God by nature: observing only the difference between the infinite excellency of our Lord, and that dark resemblance of it in us. Why is the Lord Jesus called the Son of God? Because begotten of the Father. Psa. 2:7. Wherein consists that generation of the Father? In this, that “as the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.” John 5:26. And why are we, in communion with Christ, called the sons of God? Because his father is our father. John 20:17. How is he our father? “He hath begotten us.” James 1:18. 1 John 5:4, 11. Wherein does that generation consist? “He hath made us partakers of a divine nature,” 2 Peter 1:4. Thus we are even transformed into his likeness, and have upon us no contemptible effulgence of his most glorious holiness.
XXIII. But there is here a special consideration of Christ: Who, as God, is, together with the Father and Spirit, the principal, but economically considered the meritorious and exemplary cause of our regeneration. For when he cast a veil over the majesty of the Son of God, took upon him human form, and came in the “likeness of sinful flesh,” Rom. 8:3, he thereby merited for all his elect their advancement to the illustrious dignity of the sons of God; sons, I say, not only by adoption, but by a spiritual and heavenly generation. The holy and glorious life of Christ is also the most perfect pattern of our new life, all the excellence of which consists in a conformity with the life of Christ, who is the “first-born among many brethren,” Rom. 8:29. And we may add, that Christ, as the second Adam, is become, not only by merit, but also by efficacy, “a quickening spirit,” 1 Cor. 15:45. So that the regenerate do not so much live themselves, as feel, acknowledge, and proclaim Christ living in them, Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21.
XXIV. What Christ declares of the Spirit, the author of regeneration, deserves our consideration. John 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Here interpreters inquire what we are to understand by water, and what by the Spirit? There is one who, by water understands the origin of our natural birth; comparing with this place what we have Isa. 48:1, where the Israelites are said to have come forth out of “the waters of Judah;” and Psa. 68:26, “from the fountain of Israel;” and then the meaning will be; besides that birth, whereby we are born men, there is still another requisite, whereby we are born the sons of God, which appears both simple and agreeable to Scripture language. There is another who understands by water, Christ’s obedience; we doubt not but that is the meritorious cause of our regeneration; but we question whether it is ever called water in Scripture; for no such thing appears from the Scriptures they bring to prove it, Heb. 10:22; 1 John 5:6, 8; Ezek. 36:25. By water, in these places, we are more properly to understand the Holy Spirit with his operations. And it is evident our Lord himself explains the passage in Ezekiel in this manner. The common explication, therefore, is to be preferred, that one and the same thing is meant by water and the Spirit, as it is by the Spirit and fire, Matt. 3:11. For nothing is more common in the sacred writings than to represent the Holy Spirit under the emblem of water. See among other passages, Isa. 44:3, “I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods among the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed:” where the former figurative expression is explained by the subsequent one, which is plain.
XXV. The seed of regeneration is the word of God. For thus: 1 Pet, 1:23, “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible,” διὰ λόγου ζῶντος Θεοῦ, καὶ μένοντος εἱς τον αἰῶνα which may be translated, “by the word of God, who liveth and abideth for ever;” or, “by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.” But this seed does not operate always in the same manner: for adult persons are born again by the word of God laying before them the deformity, horror, and misery of their natural life, or rather of their living death; and at the same time, the excellence of that spiritual life, of which Christ is the author, fountain, and pattern; pressing them also, by the most powerful exhortations, that, denying all carnal lusts and appetites, they may give themselves up to be new moulded and formed by the Spirit of God. And in this manner the word is to them a moral instrument of regeneration, by teaching and persuasion. But the case is otherwise with elect infants, being incapable of teaching and persuasion. If they also be thought to be regenerated by the seed of the word, it is to be understood, not of the word externally propounded, which they understand not, but of the truths contained in the word, the efficacy of which is imprinted by the Holy Spirit upon their minds, which they will come to the actual knowledge of when they grow up, but the word operates effectually in none, unless when impregnated by the efficacy of the Spirit. To the external world must be added the internal, which is no less effectual than that word of God whereby he commanded light to shine out of darkness.
XXVI. It is therefore incumbent on every person who would not profanely despise his salvation, diligently to read, hear, and meditate on the word of God, and constantly attend on the public worship and assemblies of his people. For though, before his regeneration, he cannot savingly hear, read, or meditate on the word of God; yet how can he know which may be the happy hour of his gracious visitation; what part of Holy Scripture, what sermon and what instrument the Lord is to render effectual for his regeneration by the supernatural efficacy of his Spirit? Experience teaches this, that men are born again there where the word of God is preached; a thing which is not the case in those parts of the world, which God favours not with the preaching of the gospel. And though we dare not assure any one that if he continues in hearing the word he shall certainly be born again; yet we justly insist upon this, that there is a brighter hope of the wished-for conversion for those who, in the best manner they can, use the means which God has prescribed, than for such as forwardly neglect them. While Ezekiel was prophesying to the dry bones, behold, a shaking was observed among them, and “the breath (spirit) came, and they lived,” 37:7, 10.
XXVII. Let none think it absurd, that we now speak of means for regeneration, when, but a little before, we rejected all preparations for it. We have above sufficiently proved, that none can contribute any thing to his own regeneration; yet God commands every one to “make himself a new heart and a new spirit,” Ezek. 18:31: to “awake from sleep and arise from the dead,” Eph. 5:14: and to “flee from the wrath to come,” Matt. 3:7. And what then? Shall we, insignificant mortals, pretend to reply to God, as if by our sophistry we could catch and entangle the Almighty? Shall we say to what purpose we are enjoined to what none of us can comply with? Shall we exclaim against the counsel of God, and cry out: “Since we can contribute nothing to our regeneration, is it not the best course we can take to put our hands in our bosom, and securely wait till he himself regenerate us?” But would not this be with our vain and carnal reasonings to argue with God, whose foolishness will be ever found wiser than our most exalted wisdom? How much better is it when one hears these commands of God, and, at the same time, is sensible of his own incapacity, to learn a holy despair of self, and in sorrow, anxiety, and a longing desire of soul and in the use of the means, to wait patiently for the coming of the grace of God?
XXVIII. Moreover, when a person touched with an unfeigned sense of his misery, and a sincere desire after his salvation, cries out with the jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” Acts 16:30; even then some pious emotions begin to arise, which proceed from an inward but a very tender principle of new life, and which are solicitously to be cherished. For which purpose it is expedient, 1st, That he frequently, and in as affecting a manner as possible, set before his eyes the most wretched condition of all unregenerate persons, and how himself also, while he continues in the state of nature, has nothing to expect but eternal destruction, a deprivation of the divine glory, and intolerable torments both of soul and of body; and all this unavoidable, unless he be born again in the image of God. 2dly, That affected by this consideration, he cry, pray to, be earnest with God, and not give over crying till he has obtained his grace. Let him often represent himself to himself, as now standing on the very brink of the infernal lake, with the devil standing by him, who, should the Supreme Being permit, would instantly hurry him headlong into hell; and in this anguish of his distressed soul, importune God, and, as it were, extort pardon by the warmest prayers, sighs, and tears. 3dly, Let him, moreover, go on to hear, read, and meditate on the word of God, expecting the farther motions of the Spirit, as the diseased waited for the angel to move the waters of Bethesda. 4thly, Let him join himself in society with the godly, and, in the exercise of piety, endeavour to catch the flame of devotion from their instruction, example, and prayers.