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Do John 3:3 and 3:5 Teach That People Come to Christian Faith because They Have Been Regenerated?
by Max Aplin
5/23/2019 / Salvation
At its heart, the Christian gospel message is that if a person has faith in Jesus Christ, their sins will be forgiven and they will be reconciled to God.
Another important part of this message is that if a person has faith in Christ, God responds by causing that person to be regenerated, which is also known as being born again. Regeneration is an act of God that enables a person to be His child and to have a Holy Spirit-empowered, supernatural form of life.
Receiving forgiveness and being regenerated, then, are two aspects of what is involved in becoming a Christian, and they both follow on logically from a person coming to saving faith.
THOSE WHO CLAIM THAT REGENERATION LEADS TO FAITH
You will often hear Calvinist Christians claiming, however, that faith does not lead to regeneration, but that it is actually the other way round. Most Calvinists believe that God causes some people to receive the Spirit in regeneration, and that this leads to their coming to faith in Christ.
It is true that not all Calvinists take this view. Some side with the majority Christian position that faith leads to regeneration. But most Calvinists claim that regeneration leads to faith.
TWO VERSES THAT ARE SAID TO SHOW THAT REGENERATION LEADS TO FAITH
Two biblical verses that are often appealed to by those who say that regeneration leads to faith are John 3:3 and John 3:5.
In John 3:3 Jesus says to the Jewish leader Nicodemus:
“Truly, truly, I tell you, unless someone is born from above [anothen], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
I have chosen to translate the Greek word anothen in this sentence as “from above.” This was a common meaning of the word in the Greek of the first century.
However, another common meaning of this word was “again,” and many English translations of this verse prefer to translate “born again” instead of “born from above.”
John’s Gospel contains a number of instances of words that have dual meanings, and it is likely that in this verse anothen is supposed to convey both meanings, “from above” and “again.”
Because in v. 4 Nicodemus understands “again” as Jesus’ meaning, many think that this is the primary meaning of anothen in this verse. Nevertheless, elsewhere in this Gospel anothen means “from above” (John 3:31; 19:11) but nowhere else does it mean “again.” We therefore do best to think that this is the primary meaning in this verse too, even if Nicodemus himself fails to recognize this.
For our purposes in this article, however, the meaning of anothen is not important.
Something that is important is that the reference to being born from above/born again in this verse is a reference to regeneration, as all Christians agree.
In John 3:5 Jesus states:
“Truly, truly, I tell you, unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The reference to being born of Spirit in this verse is a reference to regeneration, as all Christians agree.
THE ARGUMENT THAT APPEALS TO SEEING IN V. 3
There is more than one line of argument from these verses that is used by those who claim that regeneration leads to faith.
Some of them use an argument that appeals to what Jesus says about seeing the kingdom of God in v. 3.
The argument goes in this way:
In v. 3 the Lord says that a person cannot see the kingdom of God unless he is regenerated. Here, seeing means being able to spiritually understand what the kingdom of God is about. Clearly, a person cannot have faith before understanding what the kingdom is about. So this verse implies that, for those who become Christians, regeneration leads to seeing the kingdom, which in turn leads to having faith. Regeneration therefore logically precedes faith.
It is true that this verse implies that regeneration leads to seeing the kingdom of God.
Importantly, however, those who use this argument have misunderstood the sense of the verb “to see” in the verse.
Quite commonly in the New Testament, seeing is a metaphor for experiencing something. It is used in this way, for example, in Luke 2:26; Acts 2:27, 31; 13:35; Heb. 11:5; 1 Pet. 3:10 and Rev. 18:7. And John’s Gospel itself uses it with this sense in John 3:36; 8:51.
This is by far the most natural meaning of seeing in v. 3.
Importantly too, this interpretation is confirmed by what the Lord says in v. 5 (the other verse I quoted above), where He more or less repeats what He said in v. 3.
Instead of His reference to seeing the kingdom in v. 3, in v. 5 He refers to entering the kingdom. His point in v. 5 is not about understanding the kingdom, but about becoming a participant in it. Given how v. 5 essentially repeats v. 3, v. 5 helps to confirm that in v. 3 Jesus was not referring to understanding what the kingdom is about, but to experiencing the kingdom.
The argument that appeals to seeing the kingdom in v. 3 as evidence that regeneration leads to faith therefore fails.
THE ARGUMENT THAT ASSUMES A CERTAIN LOGICAL ORDER
Some of those who claim that regeneration leads to faith use an argument based on a supposed implication of v. 5.
The argument goes in this way:
In v. 5 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he cannot enter the kingdom of God without being regenerated. This implies that regeneration leads to entering the kingdom. But we also know that we enter the kingdom of God through faith. So in order to be in a position to have the faith that is needed to enter the kingdom, we need to first be regenerated.
It is true that in this verse Jesus teaches that regeneration leads to entering the kingdom. And it is true too that we enter the kingdom through faith, i.e., that faith leads to entering the kingdom.
However, note how those who use the above argument just assume that regeneration leads to faith. But from the information given in this verse, there is no more reason to think that we need to be regenerated in order to have faith than there is to think that we need to have faith in order to be regenerated. The verse doesn’t mention faith at all.
So potentially this verse could fit with the sequence held by most Christians:
Faith leads to regeneration, which in turn leads to entering the kingdom.
Or it could fit with the sequence held by a majority of Calvinists:
Regeneration leads to faith, which in turn leads to entering the kingdom of God.
There is not enough information in the verse itself to tell us which of these options is correct.
This argument is therefore also one that fails.
Neither of the arguments I have mentioned carries any weight. These verses do not suggest that regeneration leads to faith. Those who claim that they do are reading something into the text that is simply not there.
In fact, these verses tell us nothing at all about the relationship of faith to regeneration in Christian conversion.
THE REST OF JOHN’S GOSPEL
Although John 3:3 and 3:5 don’t say anything about the logical relationship of faith and regeneration, there are other passages in this Gospel that do.
In John 1:11-13 John tells us:
“11 He [Jesus] came to what was His own, but His own did not accept Him. 12 But as many as did accept Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those believing in His name, 13 who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of a man, but of God.”
This passage strongly implies that God responds to people’s faith by regenerating them.
There are also passages in this Gospel, which teach that faith leads to life or to eternal life:
In John 3:14-15 Jesus says:
“14 . . . the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in Him might have eternal life.”
In John 3:16 we are told:
“. . . He [God] gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.”
In John 5:40 Jesus criticizes people with these words:
“. . . you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”
Coming to Christ in this verse is a coming to Him in faith.
In John 6:40 He says:
“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in Him might have eternal life . . .”
And John 20:31 states:
“. . . these have been written, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
So in John’s Gospel faith leads to (eternal) life.
However, regeneration is the act of God by which eternal life begins. So faith must lead to regeneration.
John’s Gospel, then, teaches that faith leads to regeneration. And there are passages elsewhere in the Bible that teach the same.
The idea that people come to faith because they have been regenerated is an unbiblical one that serves to partially distort the message of the gospel. In part, this message is that people need to believe in Christ so that they might have life. We mustn’t lose sight of this truth.
For a longer and more detailed discussion of this topic, see my article:
And see also my articles:
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com
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