THOMAS: Regeneration takes place at the level of the subconscious, and conversion takes place at the level of consciousness. Let me give you an example.
My wife is an Irish Presbyterian. She was raised in a godly, spiritual home. She went to church twice on Sunday and attended Sunday school. She sat around the piano playing hymns with her mother on Sunday afternoon. She doesn’t remember a single day that she wasn’t a Christian. She has never known a day when she didn’t know and love the Lord Jesus.
My story is very different. For the first eighteen years of my life, I didn’t even think Jesus existed. I had begun to swallow the postmodern view of history, thinking that we couldn’t be certain about anything in the past and that science had all the answers. Then, my best friend in school gave me a copy of John Stott’s Basic Christianity. I read it, and within a matter of days, I was on my knees praying the sinner’s prayer. I think that my regeneration and conversion were almost simultaneous. With my wife, Rosemary, I don’t know exactly when she was converted because she may well have been regenerated in her mother’s womb. As a Presbyterian, I am okay with that.
GODFREY: Aren’t there biblical instances of children being regenerated in their mother’s wombs?
THOMAS: John the Baptist. Samuel.
GODFREY: John the Presbyterian.
PARSONS: That’s right—we call him “John the Baptizer.” This is an extremely insightful question. Those of you who are pastors or in seminary know that the history of the question is very comprehensive. It’s not as easy of an answer as some might think. It has actually been the Dutch theologians from whom I have learned the most on this very question.
GODFREY: And all other questions.
PARSONS: That’s right. In truth, Calvin wrestled with this question. It has been a question that theologians have wrestled with throughout the ages. There is language in some of the Dutch theologians about the seed of regeneration being planted. One important thing to understand is that regeneration, the making alive or quickening of our dead hearts by the Holy Spirit, precedes our ability to be converted. Regeneration precedes our ability to believe.
When we are dead in our sins and trespasses, we do not have the freedom to choose. We can only do what we are capable of doing. We can only choose what we are capable of choosing. When we are dead in our sins and trespasses, we can’t choose life. It is only the regenerating, quickening, making alive power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to believe.
It is important to understand that nothing else has to be mediated to us between regeneration and conversion. That is to say, it is all the work of God. It is all the work of the Spirit. It is immediate in the sense that it is without any other mediation. It is all the work of God, all the work of the Spirit, that regenerates us and brings us to faith.
This is a transcript of Derek Thomas’, Burk Parsons’, and W. Robert Godfrey’s answers given during our If the Foundations Are Destroyed: Escondido 2022 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.