A friend has asked how I would define regeneration in all these discussions, and has also asked how I would relate the whole thing to infant baptism.
So I will begin with the definition, move on to a brief statement of how I relate that reality to infant baptism, and then come back to my definition, because it will be more obvious by that point that my definition needs some help.
I will need to come back to it because I define regeneration as being given the efficacious gift of a new father. Since like begets like, having a new father means having a new heart, which is a shorthand way of describing the new birth. But having defined it that way, I know that I shall be asked for a definition of “new” and “heart.” So I will come back to that, at least in principle.
Relating it to infant baptism is relatively easy, which I only said as a way of getting Michael Bull to comment. Baptism is the sign and seal of that which it represents, and one of the things it represents (and thereby signs, seals, exhibits, and confers) is regeneration. It does this for all worthy receivers, who are identified as such by their evangelical faith. That faith may not appear for many years after an infant is baptized, which is just fine by the Westminster divines, who maintain that the efficacy of baptism is not at all duct-taped to the time of its administration.
Now if the baptized infant never comes to faith, then his covenantal union with Christ, sealed in his baptism, is the basis of a more severe judgment against him, for to whom much is given much is required. Baptism is never empty; baptism is never a meaningless act. I deny that baptism operates ex opere operato for blessing, but I do affirm that it operates ex opere operato in formally ratifying the baptizand’s relationship to the covenant.
Such an unconverted person has Abraham as a covenantal father, as his baptism plainly testifies, but his lying heart shows that the devil is his actual father. This individual’s sin has separated what God intended to be together — covenant responsibilities and covenant faithfulness. But covenant faithlessness in no way removes or erases covenant obligations or connections. There are multiple texts that show that the baptized faithless are connected to Christ in an important and very real sense. This is why it can truly be said that I am an FV guy. But there is another sense in which such a person does not belong to Christ because he lives in darkness — which is why I am an evangelical.
Branches are cut off the olive tree for a reason, and that reason is that they did not have faith. The unbelieving Jews were cut off because of unbelief, and we stand by faith, and faith means faith alone, and this is the text I would point to if asked to defend Luther’s statement that sola fidei is the article of a standing or falling church. It is what the apostle says.
So let us devise us a thought experiment. If the Last Trump blew tomorrow morning, or if an asteroid landed on a convention center with thousands of Christians in it, or if every professing Christian in North America had a fatal heart attack this evening at 7 pm, what would happen to all the deceased? Got the picture? We are playing musical chairs, and the music stops. What would happen to those people? My point, and it is a simple one, is that some would be saved and some would be damned.
My point has nothing whatever to do with the ratios of those two groups. It is one of life’s little ironies that Christians who are clear on the fact that there are two such groups are generally muddled on how many of them God has loved with an everlasting love. They are long on logic, but short on love, and therefore bad at math. The theology of this thing is unchanged whether there is 1 lost individual and 99 saved, or the other way around, or 50/50. If the intervention of God reveals that some were not Christians indeed, then that gives us the two categories that are understood by evangelical Christians — some covenant members in good standing are unregenerate and the rest are regenerate, and it doesn’t matter how many people are in each respective group in order to have those two groups.
It is no good to grant the whole thing as a hypothetical reality, but then go on to say that who belongs to each group is none of our business. It is our business, and the crucial business of every pastor. Examine yourselves, the apostle says, to see if Jesus Christ is in you (2 Cor. 13:5). I quote this verse cheerfully, knowing that it does not that we are to be given over to morbid introspection. But having acknowledged that it does not mean that, let us press on to the understanding that it does mean something.
It is no good to dismiss the division of sheep and goats as an eschatological vision, and thus put it out of all practical consideration. This is because, when it comes to these things, the Bible requires us to count by ones, and it requires us to start with the one closest to home. Suppose the Great Eschaton is 10,000 years off. It remains a stubborn but persistent fact that my launch into that Eschaton is no more than 50 years off. It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment (Heb. 9:27). When the wicked man falls, his hope perishes (Prov. 11:7). The tree lies in the forest right where it falls. Everyone who is over 50 is very certain to discover within 50 or so years whether he or she is a sheep or a goat, wheat or a tare, trusting in Jesus or deluded by the devil. The eschatological scythe harvests every individual long before it harvests the world.
What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul (Matt. 16:26)? The rich fool gloried in his barn-building needs, not knowing that that very evening his life would be required of him (Luke 12:20). Would things have been any different if he had been glorying in the size of the barns that God was going to need (Matt. 13:30)? He would have still been out of it, and his life was still forfeit. This means the way things are going to play out at the Last Day have an extremely personal relevance to every last human being within an error margin of a 100 years, give or take. The long and winding road between now and the Last Day is thousands of miles long, but it is a road down which no living man will be able to kick any cans further than fifty yards.
Sure, this is a bottom line, cash-it-out kind of calculus. Some might object that it is too individualistic, and speculate that its influence on us is due to the revivalistic emphasis of the Kentucky frontier. Actually, the reasons Christians keep coming back to this issue of individual salvation is that Jesus used to say stuff. Jesus said that to gain the whole world (a corporate category) in exchange for one’s own soul (kind of individualistic, wouldn’t you say?) would be what He, Jesus, would call a bad trade (Matt. 16:26). He said that we should take heed to ourselves (Luke 17:3). Do not fear man, but rather the one who can throw body and soul into Hell (Luke 12:5). Now when I fear God, who can throw body and soul into Hell, it worth asking whose body and whose soul can be so thrown. And the answer is, well, mine.
So then, back to the definition of regeneration, which is the new heart that reveals the new Father who has begotten it. I am defining regeneration as an action of God in the soul, whereby He puts to death the old man, such that, if that person were to die, God would own him as a true son, and not deny him. Those who are owned as true sons were regenerate, and those who were denied were not regenerate.
Here is the basic evangelical understanding. There are disciples and there are disciples indeed (John 8:31). There are Jews and there are Jews inwardly (Rom. 2:29). Not all Israel are of Israel (Rom. 9:6). There are Christians who abide in Christ, and Christians who don’t (John 15:1-6). There is the outside of the cup, and then there is the inside of it (Matt. 23:26). This means there are Christians and there are Christians indeed. We are called to be the latter, not the former, and it is possible to know oneself to included in the latter group without being given over to morbidity.