Berkouwer on Regeneration

With regard to the historic Protestant doctrine of regeneration, a lot could be said, and I believe a lot more should be said. One of the things we will discover is that there is more careful nuance than might be found in the peroration of a hot gospel hedge preacher. At the same time, the central doctrine is clear.

For instance, a friend sent me this passage from Berkouwer, wanting to know what I thought of it.

Believers “… can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (WCF XVII, i). It is remarkable that the nature of this continuity, this impossibility of falling “totally,” is never fully treated. As in the Canons, one can recognize a reticence here…. [N]owhere do we get a petrified anthropological picture. The entire Confession moves along the chasms and precipices of moral guilt, fall, temptation, and the reappearing of the countenance of God in answer to penitence. Because a static view of the impossibility of total falling is lacking, it is all the more clear how little is based here on reasoning from any human continuity…. [N]o one [among the Reformed] was able to make this state of affairs absolutely clear, nor did anyone wish to try. This was in line with the Reformed confessions, such as the Canons of Dort, and no independent human stability usurped the place of the faithfulness of God. In denying the possibility of falling totally it was enough to point to the keeping hand of God. [G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Perseverance (Studies in Dogmatics; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 35 (italics original)]

Now I think that I agree with this, but more than that needs to be said. I completely agree that no human stability can be allowed to usurp the place of the faithfulness of God. The ground of our perseverance can never be found in our inherent constancy. It is all the faithfulness of God. But the faithfulness of God to whom? To what category of person?
I have been arguing that at the time of the effectual call, there is a transformation of a person’s nature. That transformation amounts to a “father transplant.” Prior to the effectual call, we all have the devil for a father — whether we are baptized or not. After that call, God is our Father.

We cannot do the math for the effectual call. We cannot look at it under a microscope. We cannot tell what chemicals went into it. But we can define certain key boundaries for it.

Of course one listens to Berkouwer. How could one not?
Of course one listens to Berkouwer. How could one not?

What is necessary is to affirm the fact of such a transformation — which is not the same thing as maintaining that we can know all the details about the nature of that transformation. Still less does it mean that we can make wild claims about the indefectible nature of the new man apart from Christ. Apart from Christ, there is no new man, still less one who is indefectible. That would be to allow human stability to usurp God’s faithfulness, vying for the position of savior.

Now when someone has been transformed through the effectual work of Christ, such a person cannot fail to persevere. But this is not because he has been given an indestructible nature, one that will necessarily persevere whether or not Christ sustains him. That would be nonsense. The reality is that the man will not fail to persevere because the one who began a good work in him will not fail to complete it in the day of Christ Jesus.

Because it is the sustaining work of Christ that does it, then why is it necessary to have a change of nature in the converted soul at all? This is necessary because the promise of final perseverance through the guarantee or earnest of the Spirit is a guarantee that is not vouchsafed to every baptized member of the covenant.

Not all baptized Christians persevere. If every baptized Christian were to possess the same spiritual things, but only the (top secret) elect persevere, then what this in effect does is subsume God’s promises under God’s sovereignty. And if God’s sovereignty trumps God’s promises, if He can have two sovereign fingers crossed behind His sovereign back, then only a chump would believe God’s promises.

I believe that God’s sovereignty is revealed and manifested in Word and sacrament, not hidden behind Word and sacrament. This means that a man may close with Christ by faith, knowing that he has done so. When he knows this, it becomes possible for him to stand on the walls of his salvation, and shout down at all the demons below — it is God who justifies. Who can lay a charge against God’s elect?

When a man knows that his nature has been renewed, this is a premise in an argument about his perseverance. It is not the ground of his perseverance. It is not renewed nature > perseverance. It is renewed nature > God began this work > God promised to finish what He began > perseverance

Nothing about this assumes that a new nature is by nature indefectible. All we need to know is that it is new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, which is good, because it isn’t. We are being shaped into the image of Christ by the ongoing work of the Spirit. We are not coming out of the forge of fate as cast iron Christians. If the Spirit were to remove Himself (as Paul might say, I am out of my mind to talk this way), a man with a new nature could sin his way into Hell as completely and as finally as anyone.

In short, some men within the covenant know that they are in present possession of eternal life (1 John 5:13). Other men within the covenant cannot have such assurance for the simple reason that it is not true. The Spirit of God will never put His seal to a lie.

Everything else follows.

Lord willing, tomorrow I will post another installment on this same general subject, this time showing how having a human nature, one capable of restoration through regeneration, is an essential element in our fight with same sex mirage and all attendant follies.

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Rob Steele
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Rob Steele

The ground of our perseverance can never be found in our inherent constancy. It is all the faithfulness of God.

Amen.

But the faithfulness of God to whom?

To himself, I think. Read some Jonathan Edwards.

Jeremy
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Jeremy

Doug, was Adam given a “father implant” (Luke 3:38)? Did the devil become Adam’s father? The promises that Christ gives in baptism are not trumped by anything. They are infallible promises. But they are conditioned on faith (Col 1:21-23). Those whom God has sovereignly elected to persevere will fulfill the condition and so receive everything promised and given to them in baptism. We must not allow the promises of the covenant to subsume the conditionality of the covenant: the promises do not include a guarantee that the conditions will be fulfilled. The promises *do* include “every Spiritual blessing in Christ”… Read more »

jigawatt
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jigawatt

Somewhat on-topic here Pastor, I would enjoy hearing a reply to my questions back on Oct 31 re: Jeremiah 31, the New Covenant, “from the least to the greatest” etc. (If I remember correctly some other things came up around that time, so I didn’t press it)

https://dougwils.com/s8-expository/surveying-the-text-jeremiah.html#comment-2336856524

PerfectHold
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PerfectHold

Mightn’t Berkouwer’s praise for fuzziness inform us on your description of “at the time of the effectual call”??
How ’bout we fudge a bit more about that time frame — not put a nail into when that happened?

We don’t want to lose a scrap of assurance — but that doesn’t require us to know when we got the new nature — just that we have it.

The question you then ask as a pastor: “Do you know you’re new? What’s your evidence?”

Max
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Max

Very good article!

“Other men within the covenant cannot have such assurance for the simple reason that it is not true.”

Are you saying we may be deceived in believing that we are saved?

Jonathan Frank
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Jonathan Frank

“In short, some men within the covenant know that they are in present possession of eternal life. Other men within the covenant cannot have such assurance for the simple reason that it is not true.” This seems to me either to be problematic or to need further explication or both. Suppose an outwardly upstanding church member feels unsure of his salvation on his deathbed. Your summary, which I quote, suggests that this man is not in fact a regenerate Christian. But I don’t think, from what I’ve read, that you would actually intend to say that doubt of one’s salvation… Read more »

nathantuggy
Member

Yes, I have the same concerns about this. It seems that this is basically to state that the promises of eternal assurance are precisely given only to those who are not presently being assailed with any challenges to that assurance. There have been many reasonably devout believers who struggled mightily with feeling uncertain of their salvation; this sounds like it takes away those promises from all of those and simply declares them unsaved.

bethyada
Member

Surprising amount of agreement with Doug here, all things considered. It is renewed nature > God began this work > God promised to finish what He began > perseverance If the Spirit were to remove Himself (as Paul might say, I am out of my mind to talk this way), a man with a new nature could sin his way into Hell as completely and as finally as anyone. It is just that perhaps one is not out of his mind to think that the Spirit may remove himself. __________ I think is is important to note the difference being… Read more »

jesuguru
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jesuguru

Surprising amount of agreement here, considering a previous interaction around this topic. Some maintained that a genuinely saved person can lose that salvation. Here the argument seems perhaps that if a person is ontologically saved, it is eternal. But epistemologically, a saved person might (wrongly) suspect they are unsaved, and vice versa. That is indeed both Biblical and sensible, as Christ Himself said that many on that day will say “But Lord, Lord…” Saying that one can have wrong feelings/ideas/epistemology regarding their salvation (or lack thereof) is substantially different than saying that salvation itself, even if real in an ontological… Read more »

bethyada
Member

As to knowing, I think people can know. Though that John encourages them thus suggests that people may not feel secure and can be encouraged in such knowledge if they base it on the truth. So the Spirit does work in our spirits. But we are still fallible, weak creatures. Some personalities find it hard to know this. Some are more sensitive to their sin. John is encouraging our knowledge of the truth to line up with the truth. Still, I agree that some falsely believe they are in the kingdom. As to falling away, I think we can (contra… Read more »

jesuguru
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jesuguru

Largely agreed again, however I’ve encountered few if any who wouldn’t agree salvific promises are predicated on faith. That’s true not because you or I think it, but because it’s expressly stated in Scripture. Eph 2:8 “For it is by Grace you have been saved, through faith” The disagreement, as usual, revolves largely around the interpretation of the next verse, “and this is not of yourselves, it is a gift from God”. Is that gift salvation, from our own volitional faith? Or rather is faith itself the gift through which we’re saved? And if a faith-gift given by grace, then… Read more »

bethyada
Member

I believe that the gift is unlikely to be faith due to the construction of the sentence. This is a widely held position. I haven’t seen a convincing argument otherwise. My thoughts on it here.

jesuguru
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jesuguru

Regarding promises… Certainly between humans, and from a human perspective, there are two or more (ostensibly) equivalent parties at play, each having to voluntarily “hold up their end of the bargain”. As humans, we might therefore reason that God can lead us to the salvation water, but He can’t make us drink (or, keep drinking). But as God is not a man, and His ways infinitely higher, the nature of His promises needn’t be directly analogous. What if sin has not only corrupted our ability to keep up “our end” of a God-given promise, even if it’s only to willfully… Read more »

bethyada
Member

I do think God helps us in our struggles, still God’s promises are conditioned on faith. That is, we can be faithless. God remains faithful, but how God is faithful with the faithless man is different to how he is faithful with the faithful man.

I don’t doubt that God gives us a desire for water, that he offers us the water. I just think we have the ability to decline.

I agree with some of your above comments but I don’t agree with your Calvinist interpretations of several verses.

doug sayers
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doug sayers

Holy fatalism Batman, I would be remiss to let this opportunity get away. “It is renewed nature > God began this work > God promised to finish what He began > perseverance” – this doesn’t leave much room for meaningful repentance and a faith that works by love. Jesus holds a lot of wonderful titles but “Repenter” and “Believer” are not included among them. For clarity, among those of us who didn’t finish college, are you saying that the eternal destiny of every human soul is 100% determined by forces completely outside of their control? You do seem to infer… Read more »

adad0
Member

DS, here is one thing God says about this topic. Oh, and the universe, how ever it works, is God’s “system”. Wilson is trying to figure that system. He is not so much making up his own. Are you? John 1: 9 That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. 11 He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. 12 But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to… Read more »

bethyada
Member

Wilson wrote It is not renewed nature > perseverance. It is renewed nature > God began this work > God promised to finish what He began > perseverance What he is doing is expanding the first phrase out to explain that the perseverance follows because of God’s promise, and it is that the renewed nature intrinsically causes perseverance. He is not stating all that is involved. So I suspect that if we include faith and repentance it would be faith in Christ > renewed nature > God began this work > God promised to finish what He began > perseverance… Read more »

Jerrod Arnold
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Jerrod Arnold

“Nothing about this assumes that a new nature is by nature indefectible. All we need to know is that it is new. It doesn’t have to be perfect, which is good, because it isn’t.” Doug, I’m trying to assume all of your assumptions when asking this question. How is our new nature not perfect? Do we not have Christ’s nature? Are we not seated with him in the Heavens currently? I realize that the sanctification process is a exactly that….a process. I just thought that process involved our flesh being mortified, not our new nature being perfected. If the new… Read more »

TimMc.
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TimMc.

Hello Mr. Wilson, My name is Tim McNamara. I just read this passage and it was very informative. Lately, I have been struggling with wondering if I have a new nature. Years ago, I called out to God in faith (after have no assurance for years after an altar call). I felt something happen because as I was considering things I felt a huge weight on me. I hysterically prayed and I felt it lift and I went away with joy believing that I was redeemed. Fast forward, That event could have just been my own fancy because I don’t… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

Tim I went through the same thing; your experience is not unique at all. When God proves us, it is extremely difficult and disorienting. I found myself angry and at odds with God over the experience. It sucks. But, Scripture tells us this will happen. He is building something wonderful in you that is not of you but of Him. It takes time (more than we can bear it seems at times) and (initially) seems pointless. I too experienced confusion and disorientation as God inexorably worked to change me such that I relied on Him. He is also digging out… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

Tim, one more thing.

It is vitally important you bring your doubts, confusion, etc directly to God in prayer. He is your Father and He wants you to engage Him. “Come as you are” means just that; He wants all of you as you are. He will lead you. He is true.

In my opinion, the purpose of Elders and bretheren is to help you learn to approach Him; they cannot be a replacement for Him. When such people do attempt it, the result is always dissatisfying.

hth.

t

jesuguru
Guest
jesuguru

Hey TimMc., 1John 3:19-20 “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” Before God saves us, before He made us, He knew every moment of every day, and every doubt that would ever enter our hearts. He is greater! Review the transition from Romans 7 to 8: “What a wretched man I am! [Sound familiar? Me too…] Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”… Read more »