This post is the third in a series exploring the Grace Reaction, or the logical order of events in salvation. In this series we have compared this to a chemical reaction. In the Justification Transposition, I proposed the following logical order of steps in salvation:
Dead → Grace → Faith → Justification → Reconciliation → Regeneration/Life
In both science and theology, you might think you have something figured out. But then you notice, or more likely someone notices and points out to you, an anomaly. Something that doesn’t fit in with the explanation or theory that you have provided.
This is not a bad thing. It helps us learn and grow. Did you know that it was a conflict in the theories proposed by Maxwell and Newton that allowed Einstein to find an anomaly in Newton’s laws that further led to the Theory of Relativity. It was also an anomaly that rocked the world when scientists reported they measured subatomic particles traveling faster than light (an impossibility according to Einstein). Further testing could not reproduce the effect and the original anomaly is considered the result of faulty hardware.
Reformers would consider the first part of 1 John 5:1 as an anomaly to the logical order of events that were proposed above.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God …
This passage, they contend, supports the idea that regeneration precedes faith. On the Ligonier site, the post Born of God states:
Though many translations obscure the point, the Greek tenses used in 1 John 5:1 make it clear we believe as a result of God sovereignly granting to us the new birth. Our belief does not cause us to be born of God; it is the result of us first being born of Him.
John Piper, in his sermon Regeneration, Faith, Love: In That Order, states:
We can say, first, that regeneration is the cause of faith. That’s plain in 1 John 5:1 … Having been born of God results in our believing.
Is 1 John 5:1 an anomaly that requires us to reconsider the logical order of steps? Does regeneration precede faith? If not how can this passage be explained?
If we parse this verse in the Greek (as suggested) we find that believes is a present active participle, functioning as a verbal noun. It uses the same grammatical construction that is found in John 3:16 (see this post for details).
Πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων = everyone who actively believes
The main verb in this passage is born (or fathered depending on your translation). It is a perfect passive indicative. The perfect tense indicates an action completed in the past with continuing results or effects in the present.
This passage is stating that regeneration is an action that occurred in the past. This prior action has produced an active faith that can be seen in the present. Therefore, an active faith is the lasting effect of regeneration.
Based on this Reformers challenge the theory that regeneration occurs after faith during the grace reaction. They assert that the grammar in this passage clearly teaches the opposite. Grammar is an important part of the data that needs to be considered. But equally important is the context.
John has written this letter to a group of Christians that has gone through a church split. False teachers have contradicted many of John’s theological teachings. As a result, the people in the community have had their assurance of salvation undermined. John is writing to encourage the remaining members, helping them understand how to have confidence that they have eternal life.
John clearly expresses this purpose for writing (1 John 3:14; 5:13)
… we know that we have crossed over from death to life because …
I have written these things … so that you may know you have eternal life.
Throughout the letter John will present several tests that can be used to evaluate whether one possesses eternal life. Here are three that use the same grammatical construction (shown in the NET translation).
|verse||present participle||perfect indicative|
|2:29||everyone who practices righteousness||has been fathered by him|
|4:7||everyone who loves||has been fathered by God|
|5:1||everyone who believes||has been fathered by God|
An author often uses the perfect tense to direct the attention of the reader to the results of an action. It is the result that is the author’s primary point, not the action that produced it. Here, John is focusing the reader’s attention on the results of regeneration, rather than regeneration itself.
The three tests proposed by John reminds us that if regeneration has occurred in the past then it should produce the following results:
- a person that practices righteousness, does good (avoids sin)
- a person that loves others
- a person that has an active faith in Jesus
Within the context of the letter and within the grammatical rules, we can safely say that all three of these effects are produced by regeneration. Not many theologians would disagree.
But does this passage tell us anything about the logical order of events within the reaction?
It is possible to interpret the data in 1 John 5:1 as describing the reaction itself. Therefore, we would conclude that regeneration produces faith. However, it is not necessary to interpret this passage as describing the reaction. This passage may simply be telling us what the effects of the reaction are without telling us anything about the steps and their order within the reaction.
An active faith is the evidence that the grace reaction has already happened. From a scientific point of view, you could confirm that the grace reaction has occurred because you could detect the traces that it leaves behind. We can detect regeneration by the presence of faith.
Faith is a necessary sequence within the grace reaction. From a scientific point of view, you can describe the logical sequence of events within the grace reaction showing how faith logically precedes justification and regeneration.
Faith is both part of the reaction and a byproduct of the reaction.
Like the subatomic particles that appeared to present an anomaly that would challenge the theory of special relativity, 1 John 5:1 called into question the idea that faith occurs prior to regeneration. However, after carefully reviewing the evidence, we can conclude that this theory (faith precedes regeneration) on the grace reaction is still valid. The passage does not necessarily tell us anything about how the person was regenerated. That is not John’s goal. John wants to help people know that they possess eternal life. He is telling them to look for the effects of being regenerated.