3 Questions about Regeneration

This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.

Q: Who causes regeneration—God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit?

A: Regeneration is Trinitarian grace, involving the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in one divine act.1 It is often ascribed to God the Father, to whom the regenerate relate as his children. The expression that believers are born “of God” (ek [tou] theou) identifies him as the cause of their regeneration.2 The Father begets them anew (1 Pet. 1:3) and brings them forth (James 1:17–18).

God the Son is the Mediator of the new birth, for the Father sends the Spirit of regeneration “through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:4–6). God has made his children alive together with the risen Lord Jesus (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13) and begotten them again through his resurrection (1 Pet. 1:3). The victorious last Adam rose as “a quickening spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45)—that is, with the power to give life by the Spirit. Christ was not passive in his resurrection but actively raised himself (John 2:19; 10:17–18), and in a similar way he actively gives life to the spiritually dead (John 5:21, 25). Christ washes his people so that they are clean (John 13:8–10).

Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 3

Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley

The third volume in Reformed Systematic Theology draws on historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the role of the Holy Spirit in salvation.

God the Holy Spirit is the divine agent sent from the Father and the Son to regenerate sinners. The new birth is “of” (ek) the Spirit (John 3:5–7, 8), just as Christ’s supernatural conception in a virgin was “of [ek] the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). God saves sinners “by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5–6).

Q: Is regeneration a sovereign and effectual work of God’s grace alone?

A: Yes, it is. Although we have already presented arguments that God’s saving call is effectual grace,3 it is helpful to collect evidence from our study of regeneration in the previous chapter to show that it is a monergistic and effectual work that infallibly produces salvation.

First, regeneration is not of human will but of God: believers have been “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). John Murray said, “God is the agent or begetter without cooperation or collusion on the side of man. . . . John piles up negatives to exclude human determination.”4 Robert Culver said, “God and God alone is the author of the new birth.”5

Second, regeneration is a new birth from the Holy Spirit (John 3:3–8). J. I. Packer said, “Infants do not induce, or cooperate in, their own procreation and birth,” so the new birth is “not caused or induced by any human efforts.”6

Third, human nature is unable to produce the new birth, which must come from God the Holy Spirit. Christ said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Fourth, God grants regeneration according to his free and sovereign will. Christ illustrates, “The wind blows where it wishes” (John 3:8 ESV). James says, “Of his own will he brought us forth” (James 1:18 ESV). James Boyce wrote, “The Scripture attributes the birth to the will of God exclusively.”7

Fifth, regeneration is an act of new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10). Creation is God’s work, and he does it alone (Isa. 44:24). William Perkins said, “The conversion of a sinner is a creation, and no creature can prepare itself to his own creation.”8

Sixth, in regeneration, God takes people dead in sin and makes them alive in Christ—a spiritual resurrection by grace (Eph. 2:5). Therefore, sinners contribute no more to their initial regeneration than a corpse contributes to its resurrection. Regeneration is entirely God’s work in Christ.

Seventh, God’s Word describes regeneration as the removal of a stony heart and the implantation of a heart of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). John Owen pointed out that this implies effectual grace, for a “stony heart” is set in “an obstinate, stubborn opposition” to God, but a “heart of flesh,” by contrast, is marked by “a principle of all holy obedience unto God.” To remove the one and give the other is to overcome man’s sinful resistance and replace it with submission. To argue that God promises to do this if we do not resist his grace is to make the promise of a new heart into nonsense, for to not resist is to trust and submit. Owen showed the folly of that argument: “So, then, God promiseth to convert us, on condition that we convert ourselves; to work faith in us, on condition that we do believe; and a new heart, on condition that we make our hearts new ourselves.”9

Eighth, the new birth produces repentance, faith, love, righteous deeds, and victory over the world (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). Therefore, the new birth is the cause of conversion; men do not receive the new birth by first converting themselves. Murray wrote, “Regeneration is the beginning of all saving grace in us, and all saving grace in exercise on our part proceeds from the fountain of regeneration. We are not born again by faith or repentance or conversion; we repent and believe because we have been regenerated.”10

Hence, we see the absolute necessity of the new birth for salvation. Without regeneration, the glorious offer of the gospel will not save a single soul. It would be of no help that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” unless God also saves the sinner from his stubborn unbelief by which he “hateth the light, neither cometh to the light” (John 3:16, 20). William Whately said, “If Christ should come and die for one man ten thousand times, all those deaths should profit that one man nothing at all for his salvation, unless he be made a new creature.”11 That is why one great fruit of Christ’s death is the gift of regeneration—the new creation so that those who have lived for themselves begin to live for him (2 Cor. 5:15, 17).

Q: What is the relationship between the new birth and the sacrament of baptism?

A: Some people might see them as having no relationship at all, taking an individualistic view of salvation divorced from the church and its ordinances. The Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran churches, and, according to some interpretations, the confessions and liturgies of the Anglican, Episcopal, and Methodist churches teach that regeneration takes place through baptism, though each church has its own understanding of what this means.12

Reformed churches teach that baptism is a sign and seal of regeneration.13 As such, it is a means of grace to be received by faith. However, some Reformed divines have taught that God ordinarily regenerates the elect offspring of believers when they are baptized—not by any virtue residing in or communicated through baptism, but on account of the covenant of grace.14 The Westminster Confession of Faith (28.6) left the timing of regeneration open: “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.”15

Regeneration is Trinitarian grace, involving the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in one divine act.

We cannot here explore the doctrine of the sacraments in any depth; that pertains to the locus of ecclesiology.16 However, at this point we do need to clarify the relationship between regeneration and baptism.

The New Testament closely connects baptism to union with Christ, especially in his death, burial, and resurrection.17 However, the Bible indicates that people can be saved and receive the Holy Spirit before baptism— simply by hearing the gospel (Acts 10:44–48). People may be baptized but remain the slaves of sin (8:13, 20–23; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–5). Paul said, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17), which would be inconceivable if baptism were the ordinary means of regeneration. Therefore, baptism does not confer regeneration.

In favor of baptismal regeneration, it is often argued that Christ taught that we must be “born of water and of the Spirit” in order to enter his kingdom (John 3:5).

Some respond to this argument by saying that “water” and “Spirit” refer to natural birth and spiritual birth respectively. However, the fluids of natural birth are better described as “blood” (1:13). Furthermore, the syntax uses one verb and one preposition to describe not two births but one: literally “born of water and Spirit” (gennēthē ex hydatos kai pneumatos).

Another response to this argument from John 3:5 for baptismal regeneration is to say that “water” does refer to baptism, but only as a sign of rebirth, not a means of regeneration. However, if “water” refers to baptism, then we must acknowledge that God regenerates by or through baptism, for the phrase “born of” identifies the cause of regeneration.18

The best approach is to interpret “water” in this text to refer to the inner cleansing by God and not baptism. In the background of Christ’s teaching was the prophecy that God would cleanse the people of Israel from idolatry with “clean water,” give them a new heart, and put his Spirit in them (Ezek. 36:25–27).19 When Christ proceeded to further describe regeneration, he spoke only of the Spirit, not of water or of baptism (John 3:6, 8). If we take “water and Spirit” to mean “water, that is, the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit,” then the passage makes good sense. The Greek text, literally “of water and Spirit” (ex hydatos kai pneumatos), links the two words. Christ, like the prophets before him, elsewhere compared the work of the Spirit to flowing water.20 The imagery of this text, like many others that speak of salvation as a washing (e.g., Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5), uses the types of the Mosaic ceremonial washings to refer to salvation in Christ by the Spirit.21

It may be further argued in favor of baptismal regeneration that Ananias told Paul, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

However, this Scripture passage contains two commands, each modified by a participle, so that it may very literally be translated, “Arising, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” In the second command, cleansing (probably forgiveness) is directly linked not to baptism but to calling on the Lord in faith. Similarly, when Paul joins baptism and salvation, in the context he makes it clear that salvation is by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12).


  1. Van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, 6.3.7 (2:660); A Treatise on Regeneration, 19–20.
  2. John 1:13; 1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18; cf. the use of gennaō ek to designate a person’s mother (Matt. 1:16; Gal. 4:23) or fornication as the cause of illegitimate birth (John 8:41).
  3. See chap. 16, where we also address objections to effectual grace.
  4. Murray, Collected Writings, 2:193.
  5. Culver, Systematic Theology, 695.
  6. J. I. Packer, “Regeneration,” in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, 925. See Barrett, Salvation by Grace, 151–53.
  7. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 375.
  8. Perkins, A Treatise on God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, in Works, 6:417.
  9. Owen, Pneumatologia, in Works, 3:326–28. See Perkins, A Treatise on God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will, in Works, 6:418–19.
  10. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 103.
  11. Whately, The New Birth, 13, punctuation modernized.
  12. Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 683; Small Catechism, The Sacrament of Holy Baptism, secs. 9–10, in The Book of Concord, 359; the Thirty-Nine Articles, Art. 27, in Reformed Confessions, 2:763; and The United Methodist Hymnal(Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 39, 42. See Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, 281–85.
  13. The Westminster Confession of Faith (28.1); and the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 165), in Reformed Confessions, 4:266, 342. See the Belgic Confession (Art. 34); and the Heidelberg Catechism (LD 27, Q. 72–73), in The Three Forms of Unity, 54–56, 91.
  14. Herman Witsius said, “I find four distinct opinions among theologians. Some think that regeneration takes place at different periods of time—it may be before, it may be at, or it may be after baptism [Zanchi, Ames, Spanheim]. Others place it uniformly before baptism [Calvin, Voetius, Burgess, Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, Witsius, and van Mastricht]. Others teach that infants are baptized unto future regeneration, being incapable of it at the time [Amyraut]. Indeed, many contend that God usually confers regeneration upon infants in the very act and moment of baptism [Le Blanc, Cocceius].” Herman Witsius, “The Efficacy and Utility of Baptism,” sec. 23, trans. William Marshall and J. Mark Beach, ed. J. Mark Beach, Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 142 (full article, 121–90). See van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, 6.3.31 (2:668–69); A Treatise on Regeneration, 45–49.
  15. Reformed Confessions, 4:267.
  16. On the sacraments or ordinances, see RST, vol. 4 (forthcoming).
  17. Rom. 6:3–4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21.
  18. “If we regard hudōr [water] as baptism then we shall have to give to baptism an efficiency coordinate with Pneumatos (Spirit).” Murray, Collected Writings, 2:181.
  19. Carson, The Gospel according to John, 192–95. It is sometimes argued that Nicodemus could not have identified “water” with baptism, but baptism by John and Jesus’s disciples is present in the context (John 3:22–23, 26).
  20. John 4:14; 7:37–39; cf. Isa. 44:3–4 and references to the pouring out of the Spirit in Joel 2:28–29, etc.
  21. Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible, 3:290, on John 3:5.

This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 3: Spirit and Salvation by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.

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