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.

faith in action

I’m part way through a new book by Malcolm Maclean, and thinking it would be a good idea to write a review once I’m finished (but not promising, because of my abysmal rate of both reading and reviewing). It’s Royal Company, a section-by-section discourse on the Song of Solomon. In advance, although it may turn out to be in lieu, of a review, here is an excerpt, with my recommendation on everything I’ve read of it so far.

On Song 2:3, ‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.’


“The attitude of the woman here is a useful picture of faith being exercised by a believer. I would suggest that the order is important, in that believers need to find rest in Christ before they can feed on Christ. They need to sit down and discover afresh the rest of Jesus before they can taste his other benefits. They need to get rid of the distractions before proceeding to his attractions.

We can imagine a harassed believer being distressed by one or more of the things that we mentioned previously. He senses that he needs Jesus but cannot focus his mind on him. He needs to sit down and apply to himself appropriate promises from the Bible. As he does this, a sense of peace begins to develop.

Sometimes, the believer has been so weakened by the harassment that Jesus graciously throws, as it were, apples to the weary saint. As the Christian sits seeking rest from Jesus, he discovers that apples are faling into his lap or around him. Jesus sends to him by the Spirit specific details about himself. In this we see the compassion of Jesus.

At other times, they need to stretch out the hands of faith and choose particular pieces of fruit. Faith at times acts intelligently, choosing appropriate aspects of Christ to reflect on. It also acts innovatingly and attempts to discover new things about Jesus. Such attempts are ways to progress in the Christian life. Faith also acts increasingly because every apple on the tree is hers to enjoy, so faith moves on and picks as many apples as it can. And faith acts incessantly, because there are countless apples on this tree.”


Malcolm Maclean (2012), Royal Company: A Devotional on the Song of Solomon. Christian Focus. (Excerpt from p88.) Warmly recommended.

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.

‘about the law’

Following with interest the discussions unfolding on Ref21 and GB.

Three themes I find especially notable.

1) Of the exceptionally helpful points set out by Rick Phillips here , his point 6 in particular is something which (in my perception) if it was emphasised more would be very helpful – that in justification, faith is passive and receptive, while in sanctification, faith is active.

Here’s Smeaton on the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification (Smeaton being one of the early professors in the Free Church College, mid-C19th, and the excerpt being particularly pungent in the third para):

“… a marked line of distinction must be drawn between the prevenient grace of the Spirit and his cooperating grace. The former belongs to effectual calling, regeneration, conversion, and faith, in which the man with all his powers is the object in whom the Spirit operates by the Word; the latter belongs to his progressive sanctification, in which the Spirit calls into exercise the new powers of the renewed mind, and where there are no immediate actings of the Spirit superseding that cooperation.

“… The Holy Spirit does not move the hearts of regenerate men by mere power, but by another principle. He moves them by those spiritual powers or graces with which they are now provided. The Spirit which is in Christ without measure, is in them by measure as a Spirit of life, not moving the mind as a stone, or as a wheel, by mere power, but according to the new nature which has been created or formed in it. To lose sight of this is to ignore the fact that Christ is the source of the Spirit of life, and that the Christian has to add to his faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and all the various excellences which are in Christ Jesus. …

“The practical neglect of this distinction may sometimes be traced in Church history and on whole generations of men. The Lutherans, for example, though they spoke much and admirably of free grace and liberty, were too easily satisfied that the good tree, by the inevitable law of its existence, would bring forth its fruit. They neglected the due cultivation of the graces of the Spirit in the new creature. On the contrary, the Puritans pruned and cultivated the good tree with unwearied diligence, and made every Christian grace, after scriptural example, the subject of wholesome exhortation.” (Smeaton, Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p211-212.)

2) William B Evans saying in the post which kicked the whole thing off, “The gospel involves freedom from both the penalty and the power of sin, and the latter is not simply to be collapsed into the former. … in dismissing legitimate biblical imperatives as “legalism” this attenuated gospel robs believers of the very resources they need for progress in sanctification.”

Which actually anticipates an excerpt from E Erskine I’d read recently and earmarked for future posting:

“I do not think that it is enough, when we are pressing any duty of the law, to come in with a direction or advice at the end, telling that all is to be done in the strength of Christ; we see here that God begins his sermon of morality to Israel from Mount Sinai with a revalation of himself as the Lord God gracious and merciful through Christ, ‘I am the Lord thy God,’ and lays this as the foundation of obedience to the following precepts. … Upon the other hand there is an error, I fear too common among some. Whenever they hear a minister pressing duty, immediately they conclude him to be a legal[istic] preacher, without ever considering upon what ground he doth it; for if he press the duties of the law upon the ground of covenanted grace, he acts according to his commision, and keeps the order and method that God has laid; but if this method be not followed, if the duties of the law be urged as the foundation  of our claim to the privileges of the gospel, or without keeping Christ and the grace of the gospel in the eye of the sinner as the foundation of duty, you may indeed conclude that it is legal[istic].” (Erskine, ed McMillan, p144-145.)

3) More generally, Phillips’ point 2 on how justification and sanctification are distinct from each other.

For what it’s worth, one of the most valuable resources on the doctrine of justification I’ve ever come across (not that, admittedly, I’ve read especially extensively) is James Buchanan’s Doctrine of Justification, first published 1867. Throughout this work Buchanan consistently emphasises the distinction between justification as Christ’s work for us and sanctification as the Spirit’s work in us, and a more cogent and learned and profound and lucid treatment is hard to imagine.

On Green Baggins, they’re recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity, which is unquestionably essential reading for this whole controversy, and I can personally vouch for its practical usefulness, except that in all ages and generations the Marrow has been found to be hampered by sadly infelicitous expressions which even dear Boston’s clarificatory notes don’t fully rescue it from. Buchanan came two centuries later and was chair of systematic theology in the Free Church College at the time when Reformed theology was at the peak of its attainments to date in terms of reverent rock solid understanding of scripture truth (while simultaneously on the brink of shortly disintegrating under the weight of rationalistic doubt, although that is a story for another day), and Buchanan, and Smeaton too, incorporate all the best of the Marrow doctrine in about as firm a grasp and careful an articulation of the scriptural teaching as you could wish for.

The paper trail:

  1. Evans – Sanctification and the nature of the gospel
  2. Lucas – A rejoinder on sanctification
  3. Philips – Seven assertions
  4. Evans – Sanctification and the gospel
  5. Lucas – A concluding contribution
  6. Evans – A question of balance?
  7. Levy – light relief