Why Calvinists’ Attempts to Make Regeneration Logically Prior and Not Temporally Prior to Faith Fails

Calvinists seek to make Calvinism more biblically compatible by contending that regeneration is only logically prior to faith and not temporally prior to faith; I believe their attempt fails.

Regarding Calvinists who believe regeneration precedes faith, Jeremy A. Evans says, “This relationship is intended to be understood logically, not temporally. Temporally, the cause and effect relationship occurs simultaneously; logically, regeneration occurs before faith.”[1] David Allen similarly notes, “A majority of Calvinists argue that temporally, regeneration and conversion are simultaneous events. But they often see a necessary logical order.”[2] R.C. Sproul says, “When Reformed theology says regeneration precedes faith, it is speaking in terms of logical priority, not temporal priority. We cannot exercise saving faith until we have been regenerated, so we say faith is dependent on regeneration, not regeneration on faith.”[3] Elsewhere Sproul seems to make regeneration more than merely a necessary condition; he says, “We do not believe in order to be born again; we are born again in order to believe.”[4]

I contend that regeneration is both logically and temporally prior to faith for Calvinists who believe in the prerequisite of regeneration for faith. Important to keep in mind, the claim that something is logically prior and not temporally prior does not make it so.[5] We may think of logical priority as meaning one thing serves to explain another thing; it provides a basis for the other thing. At times, I find it helpful to think of logical priority as being informationally prior. For example, one may say printed words on a page are logically prior to a book, but it is equally true that words on a page do not cause a book; they are just a necessary condition if one is going to have a book. Also, they both logically and temporally precede a book.

Similarly, logical priority does not necessitate a certain effect or even a certain cause and effect relationship. For example, oxygen is essential to fire (logically prior), but it does not necessarily cause a fire; it merely explains one of the necessary factors for the fire to exist. If a match is lit or starts a house fire, it may be the match was struck in the presence of oxygen and then dropped that caused the house to burn. One could logically have oxygen forever (or a match, something to strike it on, and one who could strike it for that matter) without a fire, but one cannot have fire without oxygen. Oxygen is logically prior, but there is no essential cause and effect relationship between oxygen and fire. Therefore, we see that a logical priority can exist without a necessary effect, which is not true of the relationship between regeneration and faith.

Additionally, something may be both logically and temporally prior because these are not mutually exclusive categories (this clarification is usually lacking in most Calvinists distinctions between logical and temporal priority). For example, John C. Lennox points out that verses like John 1:12 and 5:40 “involve a temporal priority that is simultaneously logical.”[6] This compatibility seems particularly true in relationships in which there are intrinsic cause and effect relationships. That is to say; a relationship exists in which the cause necessarily precedes the result (effect), and the result unalterably takes place because of the presence of the cause, logically and temporally speaking. To wit, the presence of one always includes the presence of the other in the same sequence; the relationship is absolute.

The very nature of a cause and effect relationship is that the cause is necessarily prior to the effect. To say a cause and effect are temporally simultaneous is nonsense. David Allen says, “How can an effect be logically prior to its cause? How can an effect be temporally simultaneous with its cause . . . What sense does it make to say that something is logically prior but not temporally prior?”[7] Regarding regeneration and faith, there is an intrinsic and unalterable temporal cause and effect relationship when Calvinists maintain faith cannot be prior to regeneration and faith always results from regeneration. Those who believe this commonly speak of regeneration being first, causing, or resulting in faith.[8]

For example, Wayne Grudem says, “We have defined regeneration to be the act of God awakening spiritual life within us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life. On this definition, it is natural to understand that regeneration comes before saving faith. . . . However, when we say that it comes before saving faith . . . they usually come so close together that it will ordinarily seem to us that they are happening at the same time. As God addresses the effective call of the gospel to us, he regenerates us and we respond in faith and repentance to this call. There are several passages that tell us that this secret, hidden work of God in our spirits does in fact come before we respond to God in saving faith (though often it may be only seconds before we respond).”[9]

Calvinist Matt Slick gives an illustration intended to demonstrate regeneration is logically prior but not temporally prior to faith. He illustrates it this way, “In a light bulb, electricity must be in place in order for light to occur. . . . Therefore, the electricity is logically first, but not temporally first because when the electricity is present, light is the necessary and simultaneous result. . . .When regeneration is in place, faith is the necessary and simultaneous result. . . . As with the light bulb and electricity, one is logically prior to the other even though they are simultaneous.”[10]

I believe the illustration requires one clarification and one correction. The clarification, unlike regeneration and faith which always occur together (the cause, effect sequence is absolute), electricity and a lit bulb are not; not even electricity and light. One could have electricity without the bulb lighting or anything else giving off light; this is because while electricity does cause the bulb to light when properly channeled, there is not an absolute cause and effect relationship between the two; there is only an absolute relationship requiring the necessary priority of electricity. Therefore, the presence of electricity could exist forever without producing light, which is not true of regeneration and faith as designed by God according to Calvinism. The relationship between electricity and light is technically disanalogous to regeneration and faith.

The correction, regarding the specific presence of electricity “in a light bulb;” the light does not seem to be precisely “simultaneous” to the presence of electricity since light is a “result” (effect) of the cause received electricity. The bulb lights up when an electric current runs through a filament of wire; when the electricity heats the wire to a certain point, it begins to emit photons; photons are small packages of visible light.

Even if the time between the presence of electricity and the bulb lighting is a nanosecond (one billionth of a second), which makes the sequence undetectable by a human, it is still present because it is essential to a cause and effect relationship. Thus, it seems to me; this illustration demonstrates my point that regeneration is both logically and temporally prior to faith.

One more consideration that demonstrates both a logical and temporal priority of regeneration and faith is they are not only essentially related (always found together in the same sequence), but, according to compatibilism and God’s predetermined design, they are deterministically related. That is to say, faith is the determined result, effect, of regeneration. The result of this belief is that every time faith is present, it is, in fact, the absolute and determined purpose that results from the presence of regeneration. There are no misfires in regeneration, and there is never a time when regeneration takes place in a person’s life that does not result in faith; their relationship is inviolable, according to Calvinism.

Therefore, based upon the terminology used by Calvinists, the fact that a logical priority can exist without a necessary effect, that something can be both logically and temporally prior, and that there is an immediate and unalterably determined cause and effect relationship between regeneration and faith, it seems best to recognize regeneration is both a logical and temporally prior causal condition for faith (for Calvinists who believe faith cannot happen without regeneration and regeneration always results in faith). Simply put, since, in a Calvinistic belief system, the mere presence of regeneration always results in faith, and faith never precedes or results in regeneration in time and space, we are safe to say regeneration is not only logically prior but temporally and causally prior as well.

The fact is Calvinists (who believe in the prerequisite of regeneration for faith) affirm faith cannot happen without the regeneration of a person, and faith will always result from regeneration, which means regeneration happens first both logically and temporally; regeneration is the cause and faith is the effect. The cause and effect are not simultaneous since the very nature of an effect is that there exists a preceding sufficient cause.

The point of their insistence upon logical priority without temporal priority only has biblical meaning if the Calvinist can answer yes to the following questions. First, can a lost sinner exercise saving faith in Christ without having been regenerated quickened, restored? Second, can regeneration be present without resulting in faith? If they cannot answer yes to these two questions, the distinction obscures the reality of the prerequisite of regeneration in time and space because there exists an inextricable sequential cause and effect relationship. To state it a little differently, Extensivism (my term for belief that Salvation is by faith and available to all) believes man’s faith is the prerequisite for regeneration both logically and temporally. The Calvinist does not agree with the Extensivists. Since the cause and effect cannot happen simultaneously in time, this distinction of logically prior but not temporally prior beclouds the dialogue.

[1] Jeremy A. Evans, “Reflections on Determinism and Human Freedom” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 259.
[2] David Allen, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” JBTM 11 (2014), 35, http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_11-2_Fall_2014.pdf, accessed 7/22/18.
[3] R. C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Baker, Kindle edition. 228.
[4] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Kindle edition), 72-73.
[5] Calvinists often contend that if there is not a temporal simultaneousness with regeneration and faith, a person would be regenerate without being a believer. First, this is a problem generated from Calvinism and not from Scripture, a problem which does not exist in Extensivism. Second, the Scripture regularly portrays aspects of salvation sequentially (John 3:16). When someone is saved, he is not glorified until a future time (Rom 8:17, 30).
[6] John Lennox, Determined to Believe, The Sovereignty of God, Freedom, Faith, and Human Responsibility (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 191.
[7] He is commenting specifically on R.C. Sproul’s statement, “Dead men do not cooperate with grace Unless regeneration takes place first, there is no possibility of faith.” The Mystery of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1990), 105.
[8] See my book Does God Love All or Some?, chapters 11 and 12 for quotes by Calvinists that place regeneration temporally before faith. See also David’s Allen’s article “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?” for other examples, http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_11-2_Fall_2014.pdf.
[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 702.
[10] Slick, Matt. “Does Regeneration Precede Faith or Does Faith Precede Regeneration?” 12/4/16, Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry website, par. 4 & 5, https://carm.org/does-regeneration-precede-faith, accessed 7/24/23.

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Ronnie W. Rogers