Regeneration and Repenetance

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (vv. 4–5).

- Ephesians 2:1–10

The last critical issue that we must address in this brief study on repentance relates to our ability to repent. We have seen repeatedly that God calls us to live a life of repentance, but how can we obey Him if we are born unable to fulfill the command to repent?

The doctrine of moral inability — that we are unable to repent prior to regeneration — is, of course, not embraced by all Christians. No believer would ever want to say that he can merit his salvation or is able, somehow, to appropriate it by himself. But ultimately, the way many believers understand the new birth actually assumes that repentance is a result of something we do, apart from God’s prior loving choice. Most Christians affirm that being born again happens after we have faith and repentance, that whether or not we are saved is ultimately due to our choosing of Christ. What is assumed here is that all human beings are born with a will that, while it might be inclined toward evil, has enough freedom left (by grace given to all) so that it can choose to repent and follow Jesus.

Certainly, we must affirm that human choice is real and that our decision to submit to Jesus — to repent and trust in Him — is integral to our salvation. But Scripture is clear that no person can make this decision without the special work of God the Holy Spirit, which is not given to all. As Paul tells us in today’s passage, we who have believed were dead in our sin before our Creator made us alive (Eph. 2:1–5). Dead people cannot do anything, and those who are spiritually dead can never decide to put their faith in Christ when they are left to themselves. God must first renew our hearts and grant us the ability to believe. This is the work of regeneration, and it happens before faith and repentance. First the Spirit gives us a new heart and then we exercise faith. Unless we are born again (the condition) we will not see the kingdom of heaven (the result, John 3:3). Regeneration precedes faith and repentance — not the other way around.

The Lord’s command to repent and follow Him is impossible unless God changes our hearts. Thus, even repentance is a gift of the Almighty and not something for which we can ever take credit.

Coram Deo

How do we know if we have been regenerated? By the presence of repentance in our lives. All those whom God renews by His Spirit come to faith in Jesus Christ and are saved. But while we choose to repent, we can only make this choice because the Lord has graciously granted us the ability. This means that we cannot be proud even of our repentance, for it is the gift of God. Thank Him today for His gift of repentance.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 30:1–10
Ezekiel 36:22–38
Romans 6:17–18
2 Timothy 2:24–26

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