Doug Wilson, Phil Johnson, and the Regeneration Ruckus

There was a bit of a stir recently online when Doug Wilson posted the following quote with the title “Discuss Among Yourselves”—

“What is regeneration? That is an existential and experimental reality. God takes away a heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. Now, when does regeneration occur? According to the traditionalordo . . . regeneration is first, then repentance, then faith, then justification. Imputation arrives with justification. what is the righteousness that this new heart has, both experientially and practically? It is an infused righteousness. Regeneration is not imputed, right? Regeneration is a change of heart, from an unrighteous heart that hates God to a righteous (but still imperfect) heart that loves Him, repents of sin, and believes in Him . . . At the end of the day, this means . . . infused righteousness as the instrument of imputed righteousness.” (The Auburn Avenue Chronicles, pp. 60-61)

Phil Johnson replied to Doug, “I know you formally affirm the Confession. But IMO the paragraph you put up for discussion affirms precisely what the WCF denies–namely, that “infused righteousness” is instrumental in justification.”

Doug replied that he is not affirming that infused righteousness is instrumental in justification but rather highlighting a tension: “Phil, no. I am highlighting a tension between the WCF on infused/imputed and the traditional stopwatch ordo as developed by Perkins. In stopwatch world, regeneration > repentance > faith > justification.”

Phil insisted upon the important difference between infused grace and infused righteousness: “It’s a serious mistake to suggest that righteousness is “infused” at all. Leading Reformers DID speak of “infused grace.” But _grace_ and _righteousness_ are not synonyms.”

Doug agreed, but insisted that there is still a point here that signals a tension that warrants discussion amongst ourselves: “And Phil, I think we agree. A righteousness-fluid is not poured into me. But my new heart, unlike the old one, is righteous. And it was put into me.”

By way of summarizing the matter, Doug raises the question, “According to the commonly held ordo salutis, how is it that we get a righteous heart (regeneration) before we get the righteousness of Christ (justification)?”

Many may believe the question is answered by the simple affirmation that this “order” is not chronological but logical, “We do not affirm that regeneration precedes justification temporally, but only logically.” That is all very well and good. But does it truly resolve the tension? The question still remains, “How is it that we receive a righteous heart logically prior to the imputed righteousness of Christ via justification?”

I will not shake a stick at the man who says, “I don’t know, but I am not worried about it. I accept it because it is revealed, and ‘the secret things belong to God and the things revealed belong to us’ (Deuteronomy 29:29). While I’m at it, let me say with David, ‘Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me’ (Psalm 131:1)”. If that is your inclination, I will simply say amen, all is well, and let’s go have some lunch. But there are others who can be righteously concerned with the question. This particular question is not some irrelevant theological musing or guilty of the “curiosity” that Augustine warns us about.

Indeed, the Reformed have had a good bit to say about it. And, at least for me, I find great help from Herman Bavinck’s covenantal resolution to the matter. I am downright suspicious that a covenantal resolution to the matter is what Doug was up to when he posted his “Discuss Among Yourselves” quote in the first place. One final note before quoting a whole heap of Bavinck. The quotes that follow may indeed raise many questions. The covenantal background Bavinck provides is quite foreign, not only to our American evangelical context. But it is foreign to much of our Reformed and Evangelical context, which has very strong Credobaptist assumptions even among a good bit of the Presbyterians. An old Scottish Presbyterian, a top-shelf theologian, once told me in a deep and compelling Scottish accent, “Oh, Jared, the American Presbyterians have lost their heritage.” 

Yes, I know Bavinck is not a Scotsman or an American. But, he is quite helpful and we have a good bit of recovery work to do. So here is some Bavinck to that end:

The Covenant of Grace Precedes the Order of Salvation

One of Bavinck’s main points is that the covenant of grace is not an item to be placed along others within the order of salvation, but rather prior to the order of salvation and the ground of it: “The true and genuinely Reformed idea [is] that the covenant of grace does not first arise as a result of the order of salvation but precedes it and is its foundation and starting point. While it is true that the believer first, by faith, becomes aware that he or she belongs to the covenant of grace and to the number of the elect, the epistemological ground is distinct from the ontological ground” (emphasis mine) (Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 3, pg. 524)

Now, there are different conceptions of the covenant of grace within our reformed and evangelical context, so I imagine many can get behind this simple assertion that the covenant of grace precedes the ordo. But a controversy is already starting to broil with Bavinck saying that the true believer by faith “becomes aware that he or she belongs to the covenant of grace.” He distinguishes between the “epistemological ground” (by faith we become aware that we belong to the covenant of grace) and the ontological ground (the reality that we belong to the covenant of grace).

Covenantal Benefits

A closely related point is that the benefits of grace are covenantal benefits. They are not benefits that fall out of the sky to the individual. They are benefits acquired by Christ in a covenantal way: “On the Christian position there can be no doubt that all the benefits of grace have been completely and solely acquired by Christ; hence, they are included in his person and lie prepared for his church in him. Nothing needs to be added to them from the side of humankind, for all is finished. And since these benefits are all covenant benefits, were acquired in the way of the covenant, and are distributed in the same covenantal way, there is no participation in those benefits except by communion with the person of Christ, who acquired and applies them as the mediator of the covenant” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 591).

Here a resolution to Doug’s rightly acknowledged tension begins to arise. Bavinck says, “there is no participation in those benefits except by communion with the person of Christ.” In other words, we do not come to participate in the benefits of grace (regeneration being one of those benefits) apart from “communion with the person of Christ.” Along these lines, Bavinck explicity states that the covenant of grace precedes regeneration, “The covenant of grace precedes and is the foundation and starting point for the work of salvation. Regeneration, faith, and conversion are not preparations for but the benefits of covenantal fellowship of believers with God in Christ imparted to us by the Holy Spirit” (Ibid, 487).

That last line may sound upside down to some. When I as a preacher announce good news to the lost, am I not offering the covenantal terms to those who are outside and strangers to that covenant? Well, yes, that much is true. But there is more here, and that more is signaled by Bavinck. When I do that preaching, I am not simply offering covenantal terms to the lost, and the lost man is not simply responding by his free will (the Arminian position here). “But, I’m not an Arminian, I’m a good Calvinist,” you say. OK, then let’s go this way. When I do that preaching, I am not simply offering covenantal terms to the lost, and the lost man is not simply responding by the sovereign grace of God that strikes him like a lightning bolt from the sky. No, God strikes him from within the covenantnot from outside the covenant. As both the Westminster and 2nd London Baptist Confessions state: “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe” (emphasis mine) (WCF 7.3).

The Lutheran Center of Gravity

Bavinck contrasts the Reformed Covenantal understanding with the Lutheran understanding, which in part captures the problem plaguing our 21st-century reformed and evangelical community. That problem is seen in that many view regeneration as a preparatory function and neglect that it is a benefit of the covenant of grace. The whole misguided approach moves the center of gravity from Christ to man. Bavinck writes,

“More precisely, [for the Lutheran] the center of gravity in the order of salvation is located in faith and justification. Calling, contrition, and regeneration only have a preparatory function. Actually they are not yet benefits of the covenant of grace; they, as it were, still operate apart from Christ and serve to lead the sinner to Christ. Only when people believe and by that faith embrace the righteousness of Christ does God accept them in Christ, forgive their sins, make them free from the law, adopt them as his children, incorporate them into fellowship with Christ, and so on. Everything depends on faith, specifically, on the act of believing. If a person exerts this power of faith, that person has everything and has it all at once: peace, comfort, life, and blessedness. But if that person neglects to exert it, everything becomes shaky, uncertain, amissible. The whole focus, therefore, is on keeping that faith. But just as Lutheran believers fail to understand the work of grace as arising from God’s eternal election and covenant, so they also fail to relate it to nature, the world, and humanity” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 522).

Now Bavinck is just poking us in the eye. He says, “Only when people believe and by that faith embrace the righteousness of Christ does God accept them in Christ, forgive their sins . . . incorporate them into fellowship with Christ, and so on. Everything depends on faith.” The evangelicals among us say, “You better believe it, Bavinck, and you better tread lightly . . . you’re walking on holy ground.” 

“But,” says Bavinck

But, while Bavinck resonates with our evangelical spirit, he would caution us in the other direction. “I’m trying to explain the covenant here,” he says, “and it is really important. If you lose this covenant, you will lose the gospel you love and the faith alone by which man is justified.” Here’s the direct quote from Bavinck: 

“Now if the righteousness of Christ is acquired and applied not in the way of a covenant but realistically, then in the case of Christ it consists in the fact that he assumed our nature, and in that case the satisfaction and salvation accrues to all humans, for Christ assumed the nature of them all. Or it consists in the fact that everyone first acquires this physical and realistic unity with Christ only by regeneration or faithand then it is impossible to see how Christ could make satisfaction in advance for those with whom he does not become one until they believe in him; then regeneration and faith run the risk of losing their ethical character, the focus is shifted from Christ to the Christian, and the benefits of the covenant are realized only after and by faith” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 103).

These last words from Bavinck are important. If the righteousness of Christ is not acquired and applied in the way of a covenant, then “the benefits of the covenant are realized only after and by faith.” Without covenant, “everyone first acquires this “physical and realistic unity with Christ only by regeneration or faith.” In that case “it is impossible to see how Christ could make satisfaction in advance” for such people. Bavinck insists that by covenant, the saints have a “realistic unity” with Christ that precedes active regeneration and faith. Here it is important to distinguish between the benefits of the covenant (such as regeneration and justification) being “realized” and the benefits of the covenant being “appropriated” to a man. Bavinck insists that the benefits of the covenant are realized in Christ first, not in us. 

The Imputation of Christ to His Church Objectively Realized in Time in the Person of Christ

Bavinck writes, “The covenant of grace, the mystical union, the imputation of Christ to his church and of the church to Christ, all of which are rooted in eternity, are first of all objectively realized in time in the person of Christ, who was crucified, buried, raised, and glorified for and with his church” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 591).

While regeneration and justification are objectively realized in Christ’s person, along with our mystical union with Him and His imputation to us, active faith is still essential for the appropriation of regeneration and justification. We can make a distinction between these two dimensions of our salvation, but we should not separate them—”Yet, just as earlier we made a distinction between the decree and its fulfillment, so here we must distinguish between the acquisition and the application of salvation. Kaftan is admittedly correct when he remarks that the doctrines of objective and subjective salvation may not be split up. But . . . that distinction is something very different from separation” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 591).

Summing It Up

In summary, if you do not have salvation (i.e., regeneration, justification, faith, etc.) in covenant, and if you do not have the realization of Christ imputed to His church by means of that covenant in the person of Christ, then you indeed have a problem with justification (and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) following logically after regeneration. But, Bavinck demonstrates that these things are precisely what we have: salvation in covenant and the realization of Christ imputed to His church by means of that covenant in the person of Christ. 

To put it another way, regeneration is found in Christ in the first place; it is objectively realized in Christ to whom we have been bound by the covenant of grace, which itself was realized in the person of Christ and established in eternity. A mystical union binds Christ and His church prior to active faith,which is not a preparation for entrance into the covenant of grace but a benefit that flows from it.

The Imputation of Christ Precedes Regeneration

In Bavinck’s own words,

“Regeneration, faith, and conversion are not preparations that occur apart from Christ and the covenant of grace nor conditions that a person has to meet in toto or in part in his or her own strength to be incorporated in that covenant. Rather, they are benefits that already flow from the covenant of grace, the mystical union, the granting of Christ’s person. The Holy Spirit, who is the author of these benefits, was acquired by Christ for his own. Hence the imputation of Christ precedes the gift of the Spirit, and regeneration, faith, and conversion do not first lead us to Christ but are taken from Christ by the Holy Spirit and imparted to his own” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 525).

Now we see where the line is drawn. My sense is that this statement from Bavinck, “the imputation of Christ precedes the gift of the Spirit, and regeneration,” would split a room, with the majority disagreeing with him. And my suspicion is that the reason for said disagreement is that we do not have the same covenantal understanding and instincts that Bavinck possesses. Here he is one final time on the matter:

The bestowal of Christ on the church, therefore, also in this sense precedes the church’s acceptance of Christ by faith. How else could we receive the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration, and the gift of faith, all of which after all were acquired by Christ and are his possession? It is therefore not the case that we first repent or are reborn by the Holy Spirit and receive faith without Christ, in order then to go with them to Christ, to accept his righteousness, and are thus justified by Christ. But just as all the benefits of grace come to us from the good pleasure of the Father, so they now proceed from the fullness of Christ” (emphasis mine) (Ibid, 591).