With some things there’s clearly a sequential order that is both logically dependent and functionally complimentary. Before we run we walk. Before we walk we crawl. And before we crawl we usually need six to nine months of life under our belt. Any attempt to circumvent or by-pass that kind of fixed pre-determined/pre-ordained order results in inability to perform a task and failure to produce an intended and desired outcome.
Such mandatory progression is also true in the spiritual realm. In theological jargon there’s what’s known as the “ordo salutis,” or order of salvation. This refers to either the temporal or logical sequence in which the various elements of salvation are imparted to the believer; elements like justification and sanctification for example. So the broad sweep of time in view here is the initial redemptive starting point to ultimate glorification. And within those boundaries some groups have elements unique to their system, but in every system believers eventually get to the final eternal state. That’s the culmination of the journey, but different systems take different routes to get there. The names, number, and order of steps leading to final spiritual deliverance are not the same.
A point of contention in this discussion is whether regeneration precedes or follows faith. In other words, in order for one to be able to believe the gospel and trust Messiah as Savior, do they first need to be regenerated? Or, does one first exercise saving faith and then as a result of that become regenerated? I’m convinced that the second sequence of faith then regeneration is what actually transpires.
What is meant by the term regeneration? Regeneration is the act in which the Spirit of God imparts eternal life to a person dead in sin. That’s the quality aspect. Regeneration is also the act in which the Holy Spirit unites a believing sinner to God. That’s the relationship aspect. Regeneration is needed because man is dead in sin, without the life of God, and separated from God. Regeneration happens instantaneously and is not consciously experienced.
Regeneration also has various results. Man is given a new nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Man becomes a new creation or new man (2 Cor. 5:17). Man has a new relationship in that he becomes a child in the family of God (Gal. 3:26), and he has a new Father (John 8:44; Gal. 4:6).
The Spirit also has a preparatory work prior to salvation. This is seen in His ministries of illumination and conviction. Illumination is the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit which enables man to understand the message of salvation (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 6:4, 10:32). While conviction here means to prove wrong and it results in a person acknowledging truth at least inwardly.
This preparatory work of the Spirit is a divine enablement which makes a person capable of having confident trust in the total sufficiency of Messiah’s finished work for forgiveness of sin. But this enablement is divine persuasion not divine regeneration. Regeneration takes place through the indwelling of the animating Holy Spirit. And that indwelling comes through faith (Acts 2:38; Gal 3:2). So then, regeneration is not the cause of faith, it is the consequence of faith.
Another aspect to this issue is whether or not total depravity also means total inability. I take it that the bible pictures sin as corrupting all facets of our being but not rendering us completely incapable of responding to a basic sense of right and wrong written on our hearts as image bearers of God. And here I think it’s helpful to consider the biblical picture of spiritual deadness.
Essentially spiritual deadness is separation from God. But God does not picture spiritual deadness as a corpse in the sense of total inability to respond in anyway whatsoever. Even spiritually dead people make choices in the moral/spiritual realm. People still have some kind of a conscience in relation to God. They are able to choose lesser sins from greater sins. In fact, often times unbelievers are able to resist temptations that believers fall into. So yes, unbelievers are spiritually dead, but the bible does not picture them as a corpse. They are seen as dead in certain areas, but not all areas.
What then does total depravity mean? It means that man, left to himself, will not seek God (cf. Rom. 3:11). But praise God, He doesn’t leave people to themselves. God works and enables people to exercise belief which brings regeneration.
Why is this a big deal? It’s a big deal because if one has to be regenerated in order to believe, then the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is that the sinner needs to beg God to give him saving faith. And if that’s the case, the condition for salvation is praying for faith, rather than believing in what Messiah did on a Roman execution stake. Plus, the very second one believes, at that very second, one is regenerated. They come at virtually the same instantaneous point of time.
I’m simply saying that the elect (chosen by God in eternity past) are not saved until they believe. So then, I’m also saying, that the actual possession of salvation by the elect doesn’t begin at the moment of completion of Messiah’s sacrifice at Calvary, it begins at the moment an unsaved elect individual believingly responds to the gospel. And of course as a corollary to that, this would mean that regeneration follows rather precedes faith.
It’s my contention that a faith horse pulling a regeneration cart, in no way compromises or minimizes a balanced biblical understanding of Divine sovereignty and human depravity/responsibility. At the end of the day, all facets of spiritual salvation are ultimately and gloriously theocentric in their design, execution, and realization.