Granting (with reference to this previous discussion) that most people’s experience of becoming a Christian tends to be gradual and indistinct, it is till important to say that regeneration itself is an instantaneous event, which happens in a moment, at a specific point in time.
This is mainly to do with the value in distinguishing what we feel from what actually happens, our perceptions from God’s actual work in salvation. We are already familiar enough with this distinction in terms of justification. With the Shorter Catechism we assert that justification is an act of God’s free grace – it happens once and for all in a moment of time, with the sinner at that moment going from unpardoned to pardoned, alienated to reconciled, unaccepted to accepted, standing in Adam to being represented in Christ. At that moment, your relationship to God is completely reversed, and from that moment you’re as completely justified as you’re ever going to be, fully entitled to all the blessings of the covenant of grace, and certain to reach glory.
Nevertheless, the sense of being justified, the feeling of being pardoned, the perception of being accepted, may wax and wane, swell and fade, and be blurred and confused by all sorts of uncertainties, doubts, and contrary evidence, to the extent that the newly justified sinner may well feel anything but justified (the same no doubt sometimes for the long ago justified sinner). In this case though, we don’t say that a person is justified gradually, even if we do and should say that people generally come to a realisation and appreciation of their justification in a gradual and very faltering way.
It’s the same with regeneration. The fact that someone only gradually feels spiritually living and only gradually perceives themselves to be born the second time and from above does not at all alter the objective reality that when someone is indeed spiritually alive, that life was granted to them instantaneously. As to their consciousness they might have struggled over a longer or shorter period of time between faith and doubt, but as to their objective status, there was no period of semi-living, partially undead, halfway house between unsaved and saved.
That’s because regeneration isn’t like that, in the nature of the case. Salvation isn’t like that. There are only the two possible states for a soul to be in – either unsaved or saved, either spiritual death or spiritual life, either out of Christ or united to Christ, but not a mixture of both. The Father chose a definite number, Christ procured redemption for these, and the Spirit applies his redemption to them. So while it’s perfectly possible for people to be uncertain about their own salvation, there is no uncertainty on God’s side: the Spirit either has or has not regenerated them, and there is no middle ground. Someone either is or is not the subject of God’s saving work, and the start of that saving work in any person is the effectual call which culminates in regeneration.
For my part, I don’t see any advantage in drifting away from this understanding of the instantaneousness of regeneration, either from a doctrinal or psychological point of view.
1) A recent rereading of John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied reveals that he actually describes effectual calling as an act. I feel I should confess this, after implicitly invoking him on the previous post where I insisted that effectual calling is a process, not an act. However, the Westminster Confession describes effectual calling as a work, as distinct from an act. So, to avoid pitting the one against the other, I suppose that Murray’s focus must have been on the end-point of this process, while the Confession took a wider view of both the end-point and the lead-up to it. (In much the same way as you can talk about a train arriving into a station, either taking the specific point where it actually stops and disgorges its passengers, or also including the preceding duration while it hoves into view and starts slowing down, so you can talk about effectual calling either in terms of the specific point where it “effectively ushers us into the fellowship of Christ” (Murray), or also including the preceding duration of “savingly enlightening their minds, renewing and powerfully determining their wills” (Larger Catechism).) (Can you tell I’ve started a daily commute by train.)
2) I’m obviously assuming that regeneration precedes faith, although, obviously, not in the sense that there is any intervening gap in time between someone being regenerated and believing or being converted.