Is It Possible to be Forgiven (Reconciled) but Not Born Again (Regenerated)?
Lately I’ve been wondering about the traditional Christian “orders of salvation”—especially evangelical Protestant ones. “Order of salvation” (ordo salutis) refers to a doctrine about the events involved in becoming saved: election/predestination/foreknowledge, prevenient grace/inward call, conversion, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, sanctification, glorification. An “order of salvation” is an attempt to put these on a symbolic time line for the purpose of distinguishing between the elements of salvation and identifying God’s action and ours in salvation. The above list of the elements of salvation is distinctly Protestant. A Catholic order of salvation (and some Protestant ones that believe in baptismal regeneration) would include baptism and other sacraments.
This issue of the order of salvation may seem speculative, “ivory tower,” removed from practical Christianity—something that belongs only in dusty tomes of systematic theology. But, in fact, every church has an implicit, if not explicit, order of salvation. It may be inchoate, inconsistent and flexible, but it can be discovered by just asking the pastor and/or elders and deacons a few questions.
To make this a bit more accessible and understandable to people not steeped in theology: The underlying question that give rise to orders of salvation are “If a person is saved, how did/does that happen?” and “If a person is saved what did God do and the saved person do and in what sequence?”
For example, traditional Calvinism insists that regeneration by the Holy Spirit, being born again, is an act of God with no human cooperation that happens to an elect person prior (logically, not necessarily temporally) to conversion (repentance and faith). Some “high church” Calvinists, and other “catholic” (not Roman Catholic) Protestants would regard it as at baptism if the elect person being baptized is an infant. But the point is that for Calvinists, regeneration, being born again, must precede repentance and faith because all unregenerate persons are spiritually dead and would never repent and trust in Christ unless the Holy Spirit regenerated them first.
For example, traditional Arminianism insists that prevenient grace, resistible but enabling grace, precedes conversion, repentance and faith, which precedes (logically, not necessarily temporally) regeneration.
Why? Why this difference between Calvinism and Arminianism? Many reasons could be enumerated and explained, but I will venture to opine that the most basic one has to do with the nature and character of God. From an Arminian perspective, if regeneration is monergistic (totally independent of any free human decision and irresistible) God would regenerate all people. Otherwise, if he selects a few to regenerate (the “elect”) he is a respecter of persons, arbitrary, and morally ambiguous if not monstrous (seeing that those he chooses not to regenerate are destined for hell).
From a Calvinist perspective, if regeneration is synergistic, or based on conversion which is synergistic, then God is placed at sinners’ disposal, so to speak, not truly sovereign in salvation. In that case, salvation is, from the Calvinist’s perspective, a work and not solely gift.
There are other orders of salvation than these and it is one of the most basic differences between Christian traditions—often completely unknown to the ordinary lay person and sometimes also to pastors. Neglect of any theologically based order of salvation has led, in my opinion, to many evangelical churches over simplifying salvation so that it gets reduced to saying “I accept Jesus as my Savior” (or something roughly equivalent to that) so that if the person dies he or she will go to heaven and in the meantime can vote at church business meetings and teach Sunday School.
A rich, “thick,” robust theology of salvation is dying out in churches and even in some theology classes and books.
This is, I believe, the underlying reason for the rise of the “New Calvinism” in the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement. Many thinking young Christians want to know more about salvation than they have been told and they recognize there’s something wrong, lacking, in the overly simplistic treatments of salvation in the churches in which they grew up.
So, I am all for, even passionate about, a recovery of the doctrine of salvation—even if that leads to strengthening some boundaries and walls between denominations and churches. (Ideally I would hope they can rediscover and teach their particular doctrines without rejecting other orthodox Christian churches just because their orders of salvation are different.)
On the other hand, over the past several years I have become increasingly concerned that any attempt to carve an order of salvation in stone and make it rigid, inflexible, dogmatic, may be wrong and even unbiblical. It certainly does not fit with many people’s experiences of “coming to Christ.”
I am cognizant that some readers will think the previous two paragraphs contradict each other, but I don’t think they do. My suggestion is that every denomination, every church have a “normal order of salvation” while acknowledging that it has problems biblically and experientially and not every individual case has to fit it. God is sovereign and can work outside our theological boxes which are necessary but not prisons for God’s grace.
So, having no order of salvation as normative as a basis for preaching and teaching is a problem; it dumbs salvation down and tends to make it little more than mouthing a few words and thereby escaping the fire to come. Having no order of salvation has to ignore so much of the New Testament as to promote biblical illiteracy and treat much of it as superfluous. Having an order of salvation that is rigid, dogmatic, “carved in stone,” “one size fits all,” ignores the fact that Scripture itself nowhere gives us a clear order of salvation (all orders of salvation are results of theological construction) and individual experiences of salvation, even in Scripture, often do not fit the constructed theological order of salvation.
There is insufficient space in a blog post/essay to flesh this all out. Here I only want to raise a question that has been bothering me without expressing a definite conclusion. I invite your reflective thoughts about it. (Please keep your responses concise and to the point and give reasons; don’t just preach.)
When I read Scripture and reflect on many people’s experiences of salvation, I wonder if many of us (most evangelicals, at least) have wrongly assumed that a person cannot be forgiven, reconciled to God, such that if they died they would die “in a state of grace” going to paradise, without being born again/regenerated.
Now, some explanation of the question is in order just to avoid misunderstandings. (I’ve learned from blogging if nothing else that some misunderstanding is impossible to avoid, but I try to define my terms to minimize misunderstandings.) By “born again/regenerated” here I do not mean just being converted to Christ by repentance and trust in him. I mean becoming a new creation in Christ Jesus, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, receiving “the expulsive power of a new affection” (A. H. Strong). By “forgiven/reconciled to God” I mean receiving the right of access to God, peace with God, no condemnation, promise of heaven.
Can a person, such as the thief on the cross beside Jesus, such as the God-fearer Cornelius, such as the person on her deathbed praying the “sinner’s prayer” with heartfelt sorrow and hope, such as the little child who “accepts Jesus” on the last day of Vacation Bible School, be forgiven by God, reconciled with God, have access to God, peace in their heart, confidence that they will be with Christ in paradise should they die without simultaneously experiencing the full blessing of regeneration, being born again, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, united with Christ, etc.?
The Bible itself seems to require, require!, only repentance and trust in God for forgiveness, reconciliation. Jonah preached God’s judgment to Nineveh and they repented and God relented and did not destroy the city. Were they born again, regenerated? There’s no evidence that they were. Maybe they were, but that would seem to be reading theology into what the story says. Throughout the Bible, in many instances, people were forgiven and released from impending judgment and future condemnation because of their implicit or explicit repentance and trust in God. Of course, from a Christian theological view, and I agree, that was and is only possible because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Even the Ninevehites were forgiven and released from judgment because of Christ’s future atonemement on account of their repentance in response to the prophet’s proclamation. But in many cases there is no evidence or reason to conclude, based solely on the text, without theology being read into it, to believe they were saved in the full sense of being born again as I described it above.
The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by Philip immediately upon accepting Christ, but was he then also immediately born again? Was the believing thief being crucified next to Jesus born again—as I described it above (which is the standard evangelical description)? Was Cornelius already born again before the apostle laid hands on him and he received the Holy Spirit? (And yet the text calls him a righteous man before any apostle came to him!) What about the poor beggar at the rich man’s door in Jesus’s story? He died and went to Abraham’s bosom. Was he born again, regenerated or simply forgiven, reconciled with God, on account of his repentance and trust in God?
Now some critics will say “C’mon Olson! These are Old Testament believers. Regeneration came with the institution of the church on the Day of Pentecost. Since then people have to be born again to be saved.” I wonder about that. After all Jesus told the rich, young ruler he had to be “born again.” What did he mean? If others didn’t have to be born again (in the sense described above) to have a right relationship with God, why would he be singled out by Jesus with that “extra” requirement? Or did Jesus mean something else—that he had to be born again to enter fully into Jesus’ kingdom movement and become his disciple in the fullest sense?
Or, could it possibly be, that like “sanctified” and other good words “regeneration,” being “born again,” means somewhat different things in different contexts even in Scripture? And is it possible that the Bible is not a not-yet-systematized systematic theology and that, as one theologian put it, salvation cannot be reduced to a syllogism? Is God allowed (!) to forgive someone even if, for whatever reason, they are not yet, right then, born again in the sense I described above?
When we baptize a convert in water (I speak as a baptist here) we say it symbolizes “death to the old life and being raised to newness of life.” It’s a symbolic declaration of and representation of regeneration (and more). And yet we often baptize children well before the “age of accountability” just because they “accepted Christ” in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Do we believe a seven year old is truly born again and has an “old life” to which they have died and a new life to which they are being raised? What do we expect from them afterwards? (Not much, I would say, except that they now have a developing relationship with God and if they died would go to “heaven.”)
Turning to experiences: During my sixty-plus years of living in the “thick” of evangelicalism I have encountered and heard of many, many people who prayed a sinner’s prayer and accepted Christ by faith who did not seem then, sometimes ever, to be truly born again. The declaration that they were now “born again” seemed shallow and premature. And yet I could not doubt the sincerity of their conversion—even though no radical change appeared in their lives. Insofar as they lived long beyond their conversion no evidence of “the expulsive power of a new affection” appeared in them. They didn’t engage in gross sin and seemed to do their best to “follow Christ,” but to all appearances more out of duty, sometimes fear, than inward desire. And yet we declared them “born again.” I came to wonder if perhaps by God’s great mercy and grace they were forgiven, reconciled with God, but not really yet born again in the full and true sense about which Scripture speaks. In some cases I saw them go on to be born again in that sense—breaking through, so to speak, to a great transformation evidenced by joy in serving Jesus beyond just commitment to “living the Christian life.”
I grew up in a pastor’s home where the boundaries between church and home were indistinct. I knew much about the spiritual lives of people in the church because they often came to our home for prayer and spiritual counseling. And our church was not into contemporary privacy concerns. Some of the people in our church openly admitted to struggling with alcohol, for example, and my father frequently left home late at night in response to a wife’s phone call to go to a bar to bring a church member home. A woman in our church, the worship leader’s wife, had an affair with her boss at work. My mother literally invaded her home on her days off to read Scripture and pray with her. I never heard it said that such people were not saved; the explanation was always that they were still saved insofar as they were truly sorry for their condition and sought help to overcome it and didn’t deny Christ.
Were such people really born again? Where was the “expulsive power of a new affection” in them?
Today I visit numerous churches that promote being “born again” and notice that many of the “born again” people do not seem to have any inward love, joy or peace, certainly no enthusiasm for the “things of God,” the kingdom of God. Yet they have repented and trusted in Christ. Are they saved? If that question means “Would they go to paradise to be with Christ if they died?” I would have to say answer in the affirmative. If that question means “Are they born again, regenerated, enjoying the new heart, the new creation that God has in store for those who receive it?” I have to wonder.
This raises another question that is also part of my wrestling with this. Melchizedek was a pagan priest mentioned in “faith’s hall of fame” in Hebrews. He was never part of God’s chosen people, Israel. And yet, so it seems, he had a right relationship with God. I assume that means he knew God by heart repentance and trust. He was reconciled, but not regenerated. At least there’s no reason to think he was unless one imposes on the text a systematic theology. Could there be people “out there,” outside of any Christian church context, untouched by any Christian evangelist or missionary, who are forgiven, reconciled, but not born again, regenerated? Is God now judging them by the light they have and what they do with it? Could it be that he forgives them on account of the condition of their hearts even if they do not have the indwelling Holy Spirit as regenerated persons do?
Evangelical systems of theology tend to equate being forgiven, destined to go to heaven (really paradise) if they die, with being born again, regenerated. And yet, so it seems, the result in churches has been either a reduction of “born again” to saying the sinner’s prayer with no real inward transformation, no “expulsive power of a new affection,” or (less commonly) a denial of forgiveness and reconciliation with God to everyone who has repented and trusted in Christ but has not yet experienced that inward transformation.