Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer
Perhaps some of you have heard of a doctrine called, “baptismal regeneration.” Baptismal regeneration is the teaching that baptism with water regenerates you. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and many other churches (even a few Presbyterian churches), have all been corrupted, at different times, and in varying degrees, with this doctrine.
This false teaching originated with a misunderstanding of I Peter 3:20-21, which says, in the Old KJV, “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The operative phrase, of course, is that phrase, “baptism doth also now save us.” The NIV puts it this way: “and this water [that is the water of the flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also...”
Many churches interpret that to mean that when the church baptizes someone, the water of baptism automatically regenerates the person who’s baptized. But we have clear examples of people in the NT (Simon the Sorcerer & Judas), who were baptized and yet weren’t regenerate. This verse in I Peter doesn’t say that the “water” saves you, but that the “water symbolizes baptism,” which now saves you.
How can the water symbolize the water?
Well, the text says that “this water [that is, the water of the OT flood] symbolizes baptism [that is, “symbolizes the water of NT baptism, and it’s baptism] that now saves you also...”
It’s quite clear from the text that the water of NT baptism symbolizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is what “now saves you.” So it’s not the water that saves you, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit that saves you. But this text is not saying that the Holy Spirit regenerates every single person who receives the “water” of baptism. Nowhere does the Bible teach any such doctrine!
To say that the new birth can be poured out on a person through the sacrament of baptism puts man in control of salvation. The sacrament of baptism is performed by man. Its administration in the church is under man’s control.
Back in the 1800’s this doctrine of “baptismal regeneration” was the cause of a very heated controversy. Most of you have probably heard of the popular preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Well, in 1864, he printed more copies of his sermon denouncing baptismal regeneration than any other sermon he ever preached! Spurgeon realized that if we say that the new birth is, in any sense, under man’s control, we gravely distort the Gospel of salvation by grace alone from God.
The WLC #58-59 were set forth by the Westminster Assembly, way back in the 1600’s, in order to protect the church against this false teaching of baptismal regeneration.
Q. 58. How do we come to be made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured?
A. We are made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured, by the application of them unto us, which is the work especially of God the Holy Ghost.
Q. 59. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?
A. Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it, who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel.
Clearly, then, the Westminster Assembly believed that the Bible teaches that it’s God the Holy Spirit Who controls who’s born again and when, not the church that baptizes.
Perhaps some of you have seen the TV movie called, The Lady Jane Gray. That movie is based on a true story. Back in the 1500’s, prior to the convening of the Westminster Assembly, there was a struggle over whether a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian would be queen of England. Lady Jane Gray was the Presbyterian and she became queen for a very short period before queen Mary, the Roman Catholic, took the kingdom away from her.
Lady Jane was instructed to recant her Presbyterian faith, but she refused. She was asked if the church gives salvation (the correct answer, according to the Roman Catholic Church of that day was, “Yes”).
Lady Jane, however, said that Christ alone gives salvation. The Roman Catholic priest questioning her tried, again and again, to get her to admit that the church had the power to confer salvation, but Lady Jane stood firm. Because of her refusal to recant, she had her head chopped off in the Square near the Tower of London. My wife and I saw that actual chopping block, which is there to this day.
Of course, all of this took place back in the days when both sides took their religion a lot more seriously than most people do today. Would you be willing to defend the doctrine that it’s not the church that saves, but Christ alone Who saves, if it meant you’d have your head chopped off?
The whole point of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, in our text for today, was to teach Nicodemus that he was totally helpless to save himself.
John 3:3-8 says, “In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit [that is, unless he’s born by natural birth and also Spirit given birth], he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again [or “born from above”].” The wind [or Spirit] blows [or breathes] wherever [He] pleases. You hear [His voice], but you cannot tell where [He] comes from or where [He] is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’”
This text makes it abundantly clear that it’s the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit alone, Who can regenerate a person. Although God has given the church the authority to bring people into a covenant relationship with Him, outwardly, through baptism, God has not given the church the authority or the power to inwardly regenerate people. Baptismal regeneration is a false teaching that must be resisted, even unto death, as Lady Jane Gray so bravely demonstrated.
There’s another closely related doctrine being taught today, very much like baptismal regeneration, and just as dangerous. It’s called “decisional regeneration.” The only difference between baptismal regeneration and decisional regeneration is that they each tie regeneration to different human acts. Baptismal regeneration ties regeneration to the human act of baptizing with water. Decisional regeneration ties regeneration to the human act of deciding to come down the aisle in response to an altar call or deciding to accept Jesus into your heart. So both of these false teachings say that men can control when regeneration occurs.
I couldn’t believe my eyes a few years ago when I saw our own OPC, October 24, 1997 bulletin covers, purchased through our own Great Commission Publications, through another publisher. I’m sure the folks at GCP didn’t carefully review that cover, but let it slip through, unintentionally.
Usually, the bulletin covers had some Bible verse, or at least a portion of a Bible verse on them.
Well this particular bulletin cover said, “If you desire a new life...let Jesus come into your heart!”
There it was: “Let Jesus come into your heart!”
I challenge anyone here today to find that verse in the Bible! As if Jesus wants to come in, but we just won’t let Him in until we decide to let Him come in and regenerate us!
That’s like a little baby saying, “No! I’m not going to be born until I decide to be born!”
Well I’ve got news for the authors of that bulletin cover: If you desire a new life in the true Biblical sense, then Jesus has already come into your heart and His Holy Spirit has already regenerated you!
I know this because the Bible says that, by nature, we’re all “dead” in our trespasses and sins, and spiritually dead men don’t desire a new life! They’re spiritually dead!
Saying that men have the ability to choose to believe whenever they decide is the teaching of Arminianism. And that teaching is called, decisional regeneration.
Those who believe in decisional regeneration teach that men are fully able to control when and where they’re saved!
Oh, they’ll say, “Salvation is by grace, yes. Salvation is through faith, yes. But I can decide when I want to have faith, and I can decide when I want to receive God’s grace. God only offers me salvation. God only offers me grace. But I’m the one that decides if and when I wish to accept it.”
Let me illustrate that false teaching this way:
Unconverted man is separated from God by this wide chasm – picture something on the order of the Grand Canyon and then multiply it about a bazillion times! To get to heaven, or to get to God, man has to somehow get across that wide chasm. Now, everybody knows that we can’t get there by our own efforts. Some may be able to take a running start and leap out 5 feet or so over the edge of the canyon. Others will jump 10 feet. Some may even get to 20 feet. But all of them fall far short of reaching God by their own efforts.
So far, so good. “But then,” the Arminians explain, “God sent Jesus into the world to bridge that gap. Jesus Christ,” they say, “is like the bridge between man and God. Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible for all men to get across the canyon to God,” they say. “And, of course, now that the bridge has been laid by Jesus Christ, it’s up to man to decide to walk across the bridge to the other side and be saved.”
So what do you suppose, then, is the job of preachers, according to these Arminians? The job of preachers, of course, must then be to get the man to decide to make that walk across the bridge. The bridge is already there for anyone who wants to cross, so all that’s left for the preacher to do is to convince men to decide to walk across the bridge. So according to the Arminians, all you really have to do is to convince men to want to be saved and to want to go to heaven.
This “convincing,” is then done through all sorts of high pressure sales techniques, cajoling, pleading, hellfire and damnation sermons, lots of tear-jerking altar calls, and plenty of “mood music.” The people are encouraged to “come down that aisle to Jesus.” They’re exhorted to “take that step.” They’re prodded to “pray that prayer,” or to “raise that hand,” or whatever method is offered.
But they do it. They decide when they will accept this salvation. Once that bridge has been laid by Jesus Christ, the Arminian says, it’s up to man to decide to be saved and to walk across that bridge.
Once a person is convinced that the bridge is real, all they have to do is accept Jesus as their bridge and start walkin’!
According to the Arminian, once a person decides to step onto the bridge, that’s when he’s regenerated. Once he decides to put his faith in Jesus Christ, that’s when he’s born again. Note very well which comes first in this Arminian description: Faith first, then regeneration. I decide to trust in Christ, then I’m born again.
People of God, that’s exactly the opposite of what the Bible teaches!
Of course, most of those who believe in decisional regeneration also believe that once a person “decides” to start across that bridge, he can also later “decide” to turn around and come back, or he can fall or “decide” to jump off the bridge into the canyon and lose his salvation. You see, a salvation that’s dependent on man, is never a “sure thing.” If man, under his own power, can decide to believe, man, under his own power can decide to stop believing. So a person can be brought to belief again and again. Some people believe they’re “saved” 8, 9, 10 times or more in their lives as they have the opportunity, every Sunday, to walk down the aisle in their church and be saved again!
Many evangelistic crusades have developed these manipulative techniques into a fine art. They’re so good at what they do, they can often predict, with fairly decent accuracy, the percentage of people that will come forward on any given night to receive Christ. As they prepare to visit a particular city, they may advertise that they expect to see around 3-5,000 people “saved” this week, and they’ll probably be right, if, by “saved,” they mean, the person “comes forward.”
And then, when the people do come down the aisle, or raise their hand, or pray that prayer, they’re immediately welcomed into the faith and told that now they’re saved. (If they were sincere in what they did, of course!)
So decisional regeneration says, “You decide to step onto the bridge. Then you’re saved.”
So that leaves three basic kinds of people, in the Arminian’s opinion: 1) There are those who don’t want to be saved, so they never decide to go across the bridge. 2) There are those who want to be saved, but who try to get across the canyon on their own steam, without the bridge. And 3) There are those who want to be saved, and who decide to use the bridge that’s been provided for them by Jesus Christ.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
Here’s what’s wrong: Those who talk like this forget one thing. All those people on this side of the chasm – every last one of ‘em – is spiritually dead! They’re stone cold dead, spiritually! They can’t walk across that bridge. They don’t want to walk across the bridge. They’re 100%, totally and completely dead to God. That means they can’t believe, and they don’t want to believe unless God, the Holy Spirit, regenerates them first!
Jesus put it this way to Nicodemus, in John 3:5-8, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water [physical birth] and the Spirit [Spiritual birth], he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again [or, “born from above”]. The Spirit breathes wherever He pleases. You hear His voice, but you cannot tell where He comes from or where He is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
That means that it’s the Holy Spirit that decides whom to save and when to save them. Until the Holy Spirit causes a man to be born again, or to be born from above, he cannot believe in Jesus Christ. He’s spiritually dead to God.
Paul says, in Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” And then in vv. 4-5, he says, “But because of his great love for us [not because of our great love for God], God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.”
And then vv. 8-10 continue, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves [that is, even this faith doesn’t come from your own self but from God], it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
To say, then, that a spiritually dead man can “decide” to believe in God, under his own power, whenever he chooses to do so, is to fly in the face of these clear teachings of the Bible!
Arminian churches and Arminian evangelists and Arminian crusaders may talk about grace quite frequently – that’s true. But their grace is not grace alone. Their grace is God’s grace in offering man the opportunity to be saved plus man’s work of choosing to believe and be saved. They say that a man can have the desire and the ability to choose to believe, apart from God’s giving him that ability.
So the question is, “Who chooses who first?”
According to the Arminian’s false doctrine, man chooses to believe in God first, and only then does God choose to save man.
But Jesus shows Nicodemus, by His illustration of being born again, that man is totally helpless to give himself new birth. He’s also totally helpless to resist being born of the Spirit.
The point that Arminian preachers and teachers are unwilling to accept, and unwilling to preach, is that God, alone, decides who will be saved, and when! God elects. God chooses, based on His own free love and grace, and not based on anything at all that a man might think, say, or do. God raises that dead person from death to life by His mercy and grace, and God gives him faith in Jesus Christ. God takes every one of His elect, chosen people by the hand and walks them all the way across that bridge. God holds onto their hand, never letting go, so that they can never fall from His grace and be lost, once He chooses to save them.
Next week, we’ll answer some Arminian objections to this teaching that God chooses us first. But the Bible is clear. God chooses us first, and only then do we choose to believe in Jesus Christ. So that’s why God gets all the glory in our salvation!