|Guest Article: Dr. Chip Thoronton serves as the lead pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springville, AL. He is married to his wife Kerri and they have four children.
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was asked by the media: What are the dangers that confront the coming century? One danger he mentioned was, “Salvation without regeneration.” He was speaking of the 20th century, but his assessment was remarkably prophetic.
A person can be a church member, attend religious societies, pray at the supper table, listen to Christian music, wear a cross, or abstain from sex until marriage . . . yet not be saved because their heart remains unregenerate. What exactly is regeneration?
Regeneration / Circumcision
Regeneration is that secret operation of the Holy Spirit whereby He imparts spiritual life to a sinner, thereby enabling the sinner to repent and believe the gospel. Scripture uses other phrases to describe it: new birth, quickening our heart, or circumcision of the heart. For instance, God says, “[A] Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). What does this “circumcision” mean?
It would have been familiar to the Jew. OT circumcision, initially, was a physical cutting away of the foreskin of the flesh to identify one as belonging to God. It later came to represent a spiritual circumcision: the cutting away of the calloused foreskin of the heart, which identifies one as belonging to God (Deuteronomy 30:6). What does such “heart-circumcision” look like?
Paul witnessed it first-hand. He came to a city and preached by the riverside. One woman, Lydia, listened. She looked like a believer; she was a worshiper of God. Yet, her heart remained unregenerate. Scripture says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well” (Acts 16:14-15). The Spirit circumcised her heart, enabling her to believe the gospel.
The Danger of Salvation Without Regeneration
Why is regeneration (heart-circumcision) important? First, it has eternal ramifications. The Jews thought they were saved because of their outward deeds, never realizing they needed a heart-change. Many today think the same: they claim salvation, but in reality they don’t have it. Why? Because salvation is not a matter of external deeds. It is an internal heart-change (external deeds will, of course, follow).
Second, it has earthly ramifications for the church’s witness. The problem with the church’s witness today is not the media, the culture, the left-wing liberals, or the right-wing radicals. Those are all outside forces. The problem with the church’s witness comes from inside: unregenerate people who think they are saved. The #1 reason people tell me they will not come to church is because the church is full of hypocrites. Yes, (we all know) that is merely an excuse, but they are not entirely wrong, either. The church is full of hypocrites: the ones who boast of salvation but whose hearts remain unregenerate. The ancient Jews were no different: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written ‘The Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Romans 2:23-24). Could it be today: you who boast in your salvation dishonor God by acting unsaved? . . . (Perhaps) that is why the Name of God is blasphemed among the nation.
I have 3 boys. When they were born, I made a strange request: to watch them be circumcised. Very strange, I know. But hear me out. I knew what true circumcision meant. It served as a graphic reminder to me. You see, for 16 years I claimed salvation, but wasn’t saved. I talked the talk, I was a church member, I tithed. But my heart had not been circumcised. That graphic image would forever remind me of the day God cut through the callousness of my heart, causing me to cry out to Him and fling myself upon the mercies of Christ. It was not a result of my works; it was God’s gift to me (Ephesians 2:9).
William Booth was right. One danger facing his century and ours is salvation without regeneration.
Last night, David Miller preached from 1 Peter 1:1-5 on the doctrine of regeneration. In our present day, there is a great problem that plagues many churches in the SBC and the problem centers on the doctrine of regeneration. How does a person become a new creature? How does a person experience the new birth? How is a person born again – to use the phrase that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus? Well, as David Miller rightly pointed out in his sermon last night, a great number of errors exists on this subject. Below you will see a list (not exhaustive) of common errors that David rightly pointed out regarding the doctrine of regeneration.
1. The Hyper-Calvinist Position
This is a position held by those who take the sovereignty of God in salvation beyond the intent of Scripture. In other words, this group believes that God will save all of His elect – all of those to whom He predestined to salvation – apart from evangelism and missions. This is completely opposed to the divine means that God instituted for reaching the world with the gospel. Did God elect people to salvation? Did God predestine people to become part of His family prior to their birth and prior to the existence of the world? Absolutely, and that point is explicitly clear in Scripture (Ephesians 1 and Romans 8:28-30). However, the Hyper-Calvinist holds a position that suggests God will save those people apart from the means (preaching the gospel – gospel missions – evangelism) that God Himself instituted. This is a serious error and one that should be avoided.
David Miller pointed out that he has never met a single Hyper-Calvinist in his lifetime. Although he knows that they exist and that they have written books, he insists that he doesn’t know one personally. However, one common error that exists in many circles is to lump any Calvinist into the same group as a Hyper-Calvinist. That is simply wrong! Many good people have been damaged and perversely affected by such attacks. That type of logic would be the equivalent of putting all Baptists in the same category with Westboro Baptist Church. We should always make sure we use our words and terms in their proper context – especially when calling out heretical groups.
2. The Church of Christ Position
This position is one known as “Baptismal Regeneration.” It often states that in order for a person to become a Christian, they must repent of their sins and call upon the Lord for salvation. However, it goes beyond that to also say that it is required for a person to be baptized in water and that through the water baptism the individual will receive the Holy Spirit and become regenerated (born again). This is a heresy because it adds something to the finished work of Christ and His atoning blood.
While we as Baptists must uphold the importance of believer’s baptism in obedience to Christ, we must never allow our doctrine to embrace a baptismal regeneration doctrine that adds to the blood of Jesus Christ.
3. The Easy Believism Position (often among many SBC churches)
The position of easy believism is one that is widespread among SBC churches. Unfortunately, many preachers stand in the pulpit today and teach people that if they repeat a prayer after them and walk down the aisle they will be saved. The numbers of the SBC over the years have displayed the negative results of such practices. When millions of people are on the rolls of SBC churches but they don’t actively attend and haven’t in years – it’s proof positive that we are reaping the harvest of number driven / easy believism theology! This approach has resulted in trophies, awards, glitzy numbers for website stats, and notches in the belts of preachers – but a largely unregenerate church roll.
The idea that we are to simply repeat a prayer after a preacher in order to be saved is not one time mentioned in Scripture. Jesus never asked people to repeat prayers. Paul never stood before crowds and invited people to repeat the “sinner’s prayer” at the conclusion of his sermons. It’s simply a product of a time period in SBC life when evangelists and preachers were more interested in getting numbers on the annual report than they were concerned with the state of people’s souls. As David Miller rightly pointed out – this has resulted in the baptism of many 4, 5, and 6 year old children who were never truly converted. I would likewise add that it has resulted in a large amount of church attenders who are constantly wrestling with their eternal destiny because they were coerced into repeating a prayer.
What Does the Bible Say About Regeneration?
What comes first – regeneration or faith? Well, really two camps of people exist within evangelical Bible believing churches on this subject. The first camp suggests that regeneration (the new birth) occurs after a person understands they are lost and repents of their sin to God. This camp suggests that a person is born again after he prays to God asking Him for forgiveness and salvation.
The second camp suggests that our repentance, prayer, and faith is a gift from God that is caused by regeneration. In other words, the very reason a person desires to pray and seek God is because God has opened their eyes and regenerated them to life by the power of the gospel. This position claims that repentance and prayers are merely a response to God after His initial work of regeneration.
1 Peter 1:1-5 – Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,  who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Notice the text of Scripture in verse 3. Peter says plainly that God, by His great mercy, has caused us to be born again. In other words, the new birth isn’t something that we do. God is not responding to us in the work of salvation – we are responding to God. That is exactly what the text of Scripture is teaching us. And that is exactly why the Baptist Faith & Message clearly teaches that same fact:
Article IV: Salvation
Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.
Notice the language of this article. Regeneration “is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin.” This isn’t something that man does – this is something that God does. Notice further that it says, “the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, repentance and faith are effects of regeneration rather than causes of regeneration. The reason that the Baptist Faith & Message teaches that regeneration precedes faith is because the Bible clearly teaches that as well. Romans 3 claims that no man seeks God and Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly demonstrates that faith is a gift from God.
Therefore, it is clear that the famine in our land that David Miller was referring to at the beginning of his sermon is one of faithful exposition upon the truth of Holy Scripture. We truly need a resurgence of biblical and doctrinal preaching that reaches the depths of our soul! We need a resurgence of biblical exposition that results in genuine conversions rather than numbers used for the glory of man!
To God be the glory!
Pastor Josh Buice