instantaneous matters

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.


Two afterthoughts.

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.


boring is fine but it has to be real

johnmurrayThere’s a post newly appeared on Old Life on the topic of conversion. It includes a suggestion (in the middle of a lengthy quotation) that rather than being a moment of crisis, ‘it could just as likely be the case that the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life is gradual and life-long.’

Since some nasty gremlin seems to be thwarting my recent attempts to post comments on Old Life, here’s a quick blog post instead.

Two things to agree with in general.

1) It’s okay not to have a testimony. It’s doctrinally wrong and pastorally unhelpful to ‘insist upon experiences and encounters and restrictions and insights’ to prove whether someone is a believer or not.

2) It’s important not to confuse the work of the Spirit with gushes of emotion. We’re saved by faith, not by feeling – by faith in Christ’s work for us, not by sensing the Spirit’s work in us. (Or as a comment on the post so aptly puts it, ‘the important thing about “faith” is not the “experience” but the object of faith.’)

But two cautions deserve a mention too.

1) It’s unhelpful to use the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the whole course of someone’s career as a believer. Our confession and catechisms distinguish between effectual calling, regeneration and sanctification. Both effectual calling and sanctification (can) take place over a period of time. But regeneration is instantaneous. It happens in a moment, a specific point in time. Whether or not it is subjectively experienced as a crisis, it is nevertheless objectively a one-off event. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean effectual calling. We can be ‘converted to God little by little’ if by conversion there you mean sanctification. But it is a faithful saying, unworthy of all sarcastic tone, that ‘a person is either alive or dead, and to go from the wretched state of the latter to the exalted state of the former requires a monumental form of divine intervention.’ That divine intervention is what we otherwise call regeneration, and regeneration does not happen ‘little by little, by stages.’

2) Boring is fine. Conversions don’t have to be dramatic. But conversion does have to happen. Otherwise you won’t be saved.

Many people may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved (WCF 10.3). Contrary to what is asserted in the quoted article, it has never been the case that ‘affirmative answers to questions commonly asked at a public affirmation of faith were a sufficient gauge to a man or woman’s standing before God.’ Giving the right answers is a sufficient gauge to someone’s standing within the visible church – sure. That’s right and proper, but that’s not the same as their standing before God, which is presumably what ultimately matters.

Effectual calling, as the work of God the Spirit, involves convincing us of our sin and misery, in a way different from the expedient ‘I have sinned’ of a pharaoh or the compulsive trembling of a Felix. It involves enlightening the mind spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God – which is something other than understanding the technicalities on only a theoretical level. It involves renewing the will, in such a way that the natural choice stops being sin and is instead Christ. All of this might quite likely happen ‘little by little, and by stages,’ and the point when it culminates in being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit might not be discernible either to the person being called or anyone else, but it is all qualitatively and supernaturally different both from what they themselves were like before the Spirit began to work and from anyone who the Spirit does not work in.

Whether the switchover is experienced as some awful crisis or barely perceived at all, its necessary outcome is spiritual reality in the mind, will, and affections – a renewed nature which should embrace the church, clergy, creeds, and liturgy, but which is not the product of the most reformed of creed or liturgy.

The bottom line

* The fact that Calvin uttered the words ‘we are converted to God little by little, and by stages’ does not warrant today’s Calvinists blurring the distinction between the instantaneousness of regeneration and the extended-in-time-ness of effectual calling and sanctification.

* The fact that some people misguidedly insist on dramatic conversion narratives and intense religious experiences does not warrant blurring the distinction between being unconverted and being converted, blaming some ‘revivalist impulse’ of the eighteenth century, when the teaching of our pre-existing confessional documents is so clear.

cunningham and two senses

Since I mentioned Buchanan and Smeaton in the last post, it makes sense to move on to William Cunningham next. Cunningham was the Principal of the Free Church College from 1847 and his major published work was a two-volume historical theology.

This bit is related indirectly to the last post, but also interesting as an inssue in its own right.

“The Reformers did not teach that man was altogether passive, or the mere inactive subject of the operation of divine grace, or of the agency of the Holy Ghost, in the whole of the process that might be comprehended under the name of regeneration, taken in its wider sense. Regeneration may be taken either in a more limited sense – as including only the first implantation of spiritual life, by which a man, dead in sins and trespasses, is quickened or made alive, so that he is no longer dead; or it may be taken in a wider sense, as comprehending the whole of the process by which he is renewed, or made over again, in the whole man, after the image of God – as including the production of saving faith and union to Christ, or very much what is described in our Standards under the name of effectual calling.

“Now, it was only of regeneration, as understood in the first or more limited of these senses, that the Reformers maintained that man in the process was wholly passive, and not active; for they did not dispute that, before the process in the second and more enlarged sense was completed, man was spiritually alive and spiritually active, and continued so ever after during the whole process of his sanctification.” Cunningham, Historical Theology, Vol 1, p617; see also Vol 2, p411.

The biographical introduction, incidentally, says that his first ministerial charge began in Greenock in 1828 in “a sudden exigency of impatient Revivalism,” connected with John Campbell of Row. This phenomenon was characterised first by “sentimental Arminianism, but … eventually developed into mischievous Pelagianism,” and was accompanied by alleged speaking in tongues and miraculous healings. Cunningham was having none of it – “was convinced that ‘there was a perilous tendency in the views then current'” – and preached instead the pure gospel. Many people were converted under this ministry. But he was apparently very impressed by the revival-not-ism-s of 1859, they being evidently very different in nature.