What is regeneration (being born again)? Although the Baptist Faith & Message defines this word, a new doctrinal statement, A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation (“Statement”), has taken a very different understanding.
Here’s the relevant section of the BF&M:
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.
The first sentence gives a general definition of regeneration. The word “whereby” is important to our discussion because it gives a sense of order, or sequence. It is equivalent to “by which,” so we could change the word order and restate it this way:
Believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus by a work of God’s grace known as regeneration.
It is vague enough that we could take regeneration to mean the process that culminates in us becoming new creatures (the position of the Statement), or it could mean that regeneration is a necessary antecedent to us becoming new creatures (in other words, that it must take place first).
The second sentence, however, clarifies this vagueness. Regeneration is “a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit.” Does this “heart change” occur after conversion? No! In the BF&M, conversion—“repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ”—is called a response to regeneration.
This is the order presented in the Baptist Faith and Message:
- A person hears the gospel (though a gospel presentation is not explicitly mentioned, it is assumed because without it a person could not be convicted of sin, repent, and have faith in Christ).
- The Holy Spirit changes a person’s heart by convicting them of sin (regeneration).
- A person responds to the gospel with repentance and faith.
- The believer becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus.
This is consistent with John 3:3 and 5, which say:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Here, seeing / entering the kingdom of God is dependent on being born again (regenerated). The order is this:
- One is born again / born of water and the Spirit
- One sees the kingdom of God / enters the kingdom of God
If it were the other way, the verses would read:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one sees the kingdom of God he cannot be born again.”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one enters the kingdom of God, he cannot born of water and the Spirit.
Look, however, at the order presented in Article Five of the Statement:
We affirm that any person who responds to the Gospel with repentance and faith is born again through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is a new creation in Christ and enters, at the moment he believes, into eternal life.
We deny that any person is regenerated prior to or apart from hearing and responding to the Gospel.
It is quite clear from this affirmation and denial that signers of this document believe that regeneration comes after a person’s faith. The order is presented this way:
- A person hears the gospel.
- A person responds to the gospel with repentance and faith.
- A person is born again (regenerated) by the Holy Spirit.
A Step Away from the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding
The Statement equates regeneration with seeing/entering the kingdom of God—also known as salvation, the end result of the conversion experience. Thus, it is attempting to deny that salvation precedes faith, a charge often leveled at Calvinists for saying regeneration precedes faith.
Salvation and regeneration are not synonyms, and Calvinists aren’t alone in treating the two terms as describing two differing things. Calvinists don’t have a monopoly on this distinction— the BF&M identifies regeneration with a heart change produced by the Spirit occurring prior to repentance and faith. This understanding of regeneration is not exclusive to Calvinism—it is also the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I agree with the BF&M that regeneration is when the Holy Spirit changes our heart, which is a necessary prerequisite for the sinner to believe the gospel. Before the heart change we are opposed to the things of God and cannot understand them (1 Cor. 2:14). Thus it is necessary for the Spirit to change our hearts to take away that opposition, enable us to understand, and incline us towards God. Regeneration does not save anyone, instead it inclines them to God enables them to respond to the gospel. The human response to regeneration—repentance and faith—is immediate.
For much of my life I went to a non-Calvinist church that equated being “born again” with “being saved,” but even that church recognized the need for the Spirit’s enabling, they just didn’t call it “regeneration.” Until I read this Statement, I never realized that so many Southern Baptists deny the need for the Spirit to change our hearts before we can believe the truth of the gospel.
I want you to think about this for a moment. Regeneration should be something that unites Southern Baptists, not divides us. The following is an affirmation and denial that I put together. It goes against the Statement, but it is consistent with the BF&M. This isn’t a Calvinist affirmation and denial, but something both Calvinists and non-Calvinists can sign together:
We affirm that regeneration (being born again) occurs when the Holy Spirit removes a sinner’s heart of stone, which is opposed to God and spiritually blind, and gives him a new heart that is inclined toward God. Subsequent to being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, he immediately responds to the gospel with repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the moment he believes, he enters into eternal life and is a new creation in Christ Jesus.
We deny that regeneration (being born again) is equivalent to receiving the benefits of salvation, that is, eternal life, or that a sinner can respond favorably to the gospel with repentance and faith prior to or apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit.
Could you sign this affirmation and denial?
 The Statement denies the need for the Spirit to actually change the sinner’s heart prior to conversion. The Holy Spirit’s drawing has been explained elsewhere to be equally applied to all who hear the gospel and does not actually effect any change in the sinner’s heart:
“We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.
“We affirm that God, as an expression of His sovereignty, endows each person with actual free will (the ability to choose between two options), which must be exercised in accepting or rejecting God’s gracious call to salvation by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.”