We speak not here of the regeneration of elect infants dying in their infancy; God hath his own way of dealing with them; but of the regeneration of those who are capable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word, which we may thus describe.
Regeneration (being one in effect with effectual calling) is the work of God's invincible power and mere grace, wherein, by his Spirit accompanying his word, he quickened a redeemed person lying dead in his sins, and reneweth him in his mind, will, and all the powers of his soul; convincing him savingly of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and making him heartily to embrace Christ and salvation, and to consecrate himself to the service of God in Christ, all the days of his life.
The main thing we must take heed to in this work is to give to God entirely the glory of his grace, and power, and wisdom, so that the glory of man's regeneration be neither given to man, nor man made sharer of the glory with God; but God may have the whole glory of his free grace, because out of his own good will, not for any thing at all foreseen in man, he lets forth his special love on the redeemed in a time acceptable. And the glory of his almighty power, because by his omnipotent and invisible working, he makes the man dead in sins to live, opens his eyes to take up savingly the things of God, takes away the heart of stone, and makes him a new creature, to will and to do his holy will. And the glory of his wisdom, who dealeth so with his creature, as he doth not destroy, but perfect the natural power of man's will, making the man regenerated, most freely, deliberately, and heartily to embrace Christ, and to consecrate himself to God's service. The reason why we urge this, is, because Satan, by corrupting the doctrine of regeneration, and persuading men that they are capable of themselves, by the common and the natural strength of their own free will, without the special and effectual grace of God, both to convert themselves and others also, doth foster the native pride of men; hindereth them from emptying and humbling themselves before God; keepeth them from self-denial; doth mar the regeneration of them that are deluded with this error, and obscureth what he can, the shining of the glory of God's grace, power, and wisdom, in the conversion of men. For whatsoever praise proud men let go toward God for making men's conversion possible, yet they give the whole glory of actual conversion to the man himself, which Christ ascribeth to God only, and leaveth no more for man to glory in his spiritual regeneration, than he hath to glory in his own natural generation, (John 3:5-8). And the same doth the apostle teach, (Eph 2:8-10, and Phil 2:13). "It is God (saith he) which worketh in you both to will and to do of his own good pleasure." And therefore it is the duty of all Christ's disciples, but chiefly their duty who are consecrated to God, to preach up the glory of God's free grace, omnipotent power, and unsearchable wisdom; to live in the sense of their own emptiness, and to depend upon the furniture of grace for grace, out of Christ's fulness; and zealously to oppose the proud error of man's natural ability for converting himself; as they love to see and find the effectual blessing of the ministry of the gospel, and themselves accepted for true disciples, at the day of their meeting with Christ the judge at his second coming.
For opening up of regeneration, these five propositions must be holden.
The First is this - "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for, they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned," (1 Cor 2:14).
The Second is this - It is the Spirit of God which convinceth man of sin, of true righteousness, and of judgment, (John 16: 9-11).
The Third is this - In the regeneration, conversion, and quickening of a sinner, God, by His invincible power, createth and infuseth a new life, and principles thereof, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power," (Ps 110:3, John 5:21, 6:63).
The Fourth is this - The invincible grace of God, working regeneration and a man's conversion, doth not destroy the freedom of man's will, but makes it truly free, and perfects it. "I will make a covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, and will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts," (Jer 31:31).
The Fifth is this - Albeit a man, in the act of God's quickening and converting of him, be passive, and in a spiritual sense dead in sins and trespasses, yet, for exercising external means, whereof God maketh use unto his conversion, for fitting him, and preparing him for a gracious change (such as are, hearing of the word, reading it, meditating on it, inquiring after the meaning of it,) the natural man hath a natural power thereunto as to other external actions; which sufficeth to take away excuse from them who have occasion of using the means, and will not use them (Matt 23:37).
For clearing of the first proposition, we must remember, that the object of actual regeneration, conversion, and effectual calling, is the man elected or redeemed by Christ, lying in the state of defection from God, destitute of original righteousness, at enmity with God, bently inclined to all evil, altogether unfit and impotent, yea, even spiritually dead to every spiritual good, and specially to convert, regenerate, or quicken himself. For albeit after the fall of Adam, there are some sparks of common reason remaining, whereby he may confusedly know that which is called spiritually good, acceptable and pleasant unto God, and fit to save his soul; yet the understanding of the unrenewed man judgeth of that good, and of the truth of the Evangel wherein that good is proponed, to be mere foolishness; and doth represent the spiritual object, and sets it before the will, as a thing uncertain or vain: and the will of the unrenewed man, after deliberation and comparison made of objects, some honest, some pleasant, and some profitable in appearance, naturally is inclined to prefer and choose any seemingly pleasant or profitable thing, whether the object be natural or civil, rather than that which is truly honest, and morally good. But if it fall out that a spiritual good be well, and in fair colours described unto the unrenewed man, yet he seeth it not, but under the notion of a natural good, and as it is clothed with the image of some natural good, and profitable for preserving its standing in a natural being and welfare therein. So did the false prophet Balaam look upon the felicity of the righteous in their death, when he did separate eternal life from faith and sanctification, and did rend asunder the means from the end appointed of Gad, saying, "Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his" (Num 23:10).
After this manner the woman of Samaria apprehended the gift and grace of the Holy Ghost, and saving grace offered to her by Christ: "Lord," saith she, "give me of that water, that I may not thirst again, and may not come again to draw water," (John 4:15). So also did the misbelieving Jews judge of the application of Christ's incarnation and suffering, for their spiritual feeding, (John 6:33-35); for, "the natural man cannot know the things of the Spirit of God, because they are spiritually discerned," and the natural man is destitute of the spirit of illumination, (1 Cor 2:14). And the wisdom of the flesh is enmity to God; for it is not subject to the law of God, yea, it cannot be subject unto it, (Rom 8:7). The power, therefore, of the natural or unrenewed man, is not fitted for the discerning, and loving of a spiritual good, because he is altogether natural and not spiritual; for a supernatural object requireth a supernatural power of the understanding and will to take it up, and rightly conceive of it. But of this supernatural faculty the unrenewed man is destitute, and in respect of spiritual discerning, he is dead, that he cannot discern spiritual things spiritually.
As for the second proposition anent a man's regeneration, the Lord, that he may break the carnal confidence of the person whom he is to convert, first, sheweth him his duty by the doctrine of the law and covenant of works, making him to see the same by the powerful illumination of the Holy Spirit, and so, taketh away all pretext of ignorance. Secondly, he sheweth him his guiltiness and deserved damnation wherein he is involved, and so, taketh away all conceit and imagination of his innocency. Thirdly, he doth convince him of his utter inability to satisfy the law, or to deliver himself from the curse thereof, either by way of action and obedience, or by way of suffering, and paying the penalty of the violated law of God; and so, overturned all confidence in himself, or in his own works. Whence followeth the elect man's desperation to be delivered by himself, because he seeth himself a sinner, and that all hope of justification by his own deeds or suffering is cut off. Now, that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, is plain: "When the Comforter, the Spirit of truth shall come, he shall convince the world of sin," (John 16:8). And in this condition sundry of God's dear children, for a time, are kept under the bonds of the law, under the spirit of bondage and sad conviction.
As for the third proposition, the Lord, after He hath laid the sins of his elect child who is to be converted, to his charge, by the doctrine of the law, first, openeth up a light unto him in the doctrine of the gospel, and lets him see that his absolution from sin, and his salvation is possible, and may be had, by flying unto Christ the Redeemer. Secondly, the Lord drawing near the humbled self-condemned soul, deals with him by way of moral persuasion, sweetly inviting him in the preaching of the gospel, to receive the Redeemer, Christ Jesus, the eternal Son of God manifested in the flesh, that by receiving of Him as he is offered in the evangel, for remission of sin, renovation of life, and eternal salvation, he may close the covenant of grace and reconciliation with God. Thirdly, because the fall of Adam hath bereft man of all spiritual and supernatural power, till he be supernaturally quickened and converted by the omnipotent power of God's grace, therefore, the Lord superaddeth unto moral persuasion, effectual operation, and formeth in the soul a spiritual faculty and ability for doing what is pleasant unto God, and tendeth to save himself according to the will of God. This infusion of a new life, sometimes is called the forming of the new creature; sometimes regeneration; sometimes rising from the dead, and vivification, or quickening of the man; sometimes saving grace, and the life of God, and the seed of God; having in it the principle of all saving graces and habits, which are brought forth afterward to acts and exercise.
Meantime, true it is that all men, because of their inborn corruption, have an inclination and bent disposition to resist the Holy Ghost; but when the Lord will actually convert the man, he overcometh and taketh away actual resistance, and doth so break the power of natural rebellion, that it doth not for ever after reign in him. For if God did not take away actual resistance of the man in his conversion, no conversion would certainly follow, and God would be disappointed of his purpose to convert the man, even when he hath put forth his almighty power to work conversion. But God doth so wisely and powerfully stir up this newly infused life of grace, and setteth it so to work, that the understanding and judgment, like a counsellor, and the will, like a commanding emperor, and the active power of the newly infused faculty, like an officer, do all bestir themselves to bring forth supernatural operations. Whence it cometh to pass, that the new creature beginneth to look kindly on Christ the Redeemer, and to desire to be united unto him; and doth stretch forth itself to embrace him heartily, for obtaining in him righteousness and salvation, as he is offered in the gospel. And so, he casts himself over on Christ, with full purpose never to shed from him, but by faith to draw out of him grace for grace, till he be perfected. And here, the man that was merely passive in his quickening and regeneration, beginneth presently to be active in his conversion, and following conversation, for God giveth to him to will and to do of his good pleasure; and he, having obtained by God's effectual operation to will and to do, doth formally will and do the good which is done.
As to the fourth proposition, when the power of God is put forth invincibly for the converting of a soul, that invincible working is so far from destroying the natural liberty of the will, that it doth indeed preserve it, and sets it right on the right object, and doth perfect it. For, as when God openeth the eyes of a man's understanding that he doth behold the wonders of his law, when he removeth the natural blindness of the mind, and maketh a man to see that the gospel is the wisdom and power of God unto salvation, which sometimes he counted to be mere foolishness, he doth no ways destroy the man's judgment or understanding; but doth correct, help, heal, and perfect it - so, when the Holy Spirit doth powerfully and effectually move and turn the will of the man to embrace the sweet and saving offers of Christ's grace in the gospel, and make him deliberately choose this blessed way of salvation, and to renounce all confidence in his own, or any other's worth or works, he doth not destroy, but perfect the liberty of the will, and raiseth it up from death and its damnable inclination, and maketh it most joyfully and most freely to make choice of this pearl of great price, and bless itself in its choice for ever. Therefore, let no man complain of wrong done to man's free-will, when God stops its way to hell, and wisely, powerfully, graciously and sweetly moveth it to choose the way of life: but rather let men beware to take the glory of actual conversion of men, from God, and either give it wholly to their idol of free-will, or make it sharer of the glory of regeneration with God; which glory God will not give to another, but reserve wholly to himself; for all men, in the point and moment of regeneration, are like unto Lazarus in the grave, to whom God by commanding him to arise, gave life and power to arise out of the grave where he lay dead and rotting.
As to the fifth proposition, we must distinguish the work of regeneration, from the preparation and disposition of the man to be regenerated, whereby he is made more capable of regeneration to be wrought in him. For the material disposition of him, fitting him for regeneration, is neither a part nor a degree of regeneration; for albeit the Lord be not bound to these preparatory dispositions, yet he will have man bound to make use of these external means which may prepare him; because by the use of external means, (such as are, hearing the word, catechising and conference), a man may be brought more near unto regeneration, as Christ doth teach us by his speech to that Pharisee, who was instructed in the law, and answered discreetly unto Christ; "Thou art not far (saith he) from the kingdom of God," (Mark 12:34). This preparatory disposition, in order to regeneration, is like unto the drying of timber to make it sooner take fire, when it is casten into it. For dryness in the timber, is neither a part nor a degree of kindling or inflammation of it; but only a preparation of the timber to receive inflammation when the fire shall be set to it, or it be put in the fire, possible, a long time after. In these preparatory exercises then, no man will deny, that the natural man unrenewed, hath a natural power to go and hear a sermon preached, to read the scripture, to be informed by catechising and conference of religion and regeneration, whereof God when he pleaseth may make use in regeneration of the man. Wherefore, whosoever in the preaching of the gospel, are charged and commanded to repent, to believe in Christ, or turn unto God, they are commanded also to use all these external means whereby they may be informed of the duty required, and of the means leading thereunto; in the exercise of which external means, they may meet with sundry common operations and effects of God's Spirit, before they be regenerated or converted, whereof the use may be found not only in, but also after, conversion. And if any man shall refuse, slight, or neglect to follow these preparatory exercises, which may prepare him for conversion, he is inexcusable before God and man, and guilty of rejecting the offer of reconciliation; yea, guilty of resisting the Holy Ghost, of which sin and guiltiness, the holy martyr Stephen chargeth the misbelieving Jews, (Acts 7:51).
II. THE REGENERATE MAN
As for the regenerate man, he it is who in the acknowledgment of his sinfulness and deserved misery, and of his utter inability to help himself, doth cast away all confidence in his own parts, and possible righteousness of his own works, and fleeth to Christ offered in the gospel, that in Christ alone he may have true wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; and doth with full purpose of heart consecrate himself, and endeavour, in the strength of Christ, to serve God acceptably all the days of his life.
For the ground of this description, we have the words of the apostle, where putting a difference between the true people of God, and the counterfeit, he saith, "We are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Jesus Christ, and have not confidence in the flesh," (Phil 3:3). In which description of the regenerate man, the apostle first points forth unto us three special operations of the Spirit of regeneration; then, three duties of the man regenerated.
The first operation of the Spirit of God, the only circumciser of the heart, is the humbling of the man in the sense of his sin, by the doctrine of the law, and cutting off all his confidence in his own worth, wit, free-will, and strength to help himself, so that the man hath no confidence in the flesh.
The second operation, is the infusion of saving faith, making the man humbled to close with Christ in the covenant of reconciliation, and to rest upon Him as the only and sufficient remedy of sin and misery; so that Christ becometh to him the ground of rejoicing and glorifying.
The third operation, is the up-stirring and enabling of the believer in Christ, to endeavour new obedience, and to worship God in the Spirit.
As for the three duties of the man regenerated, the first is, to follow the leading of the Spirit in the point of more and more humbling of himself before God in the sense of his own insufficiency, and eschewing of all leaning on his own parts, gifts, works, or sufferings, or any thing else beside Christ: he must have "no confidence in the flesh."
The second duty, is to grow in the estimation of Christ's righteousness, and fulness of all graces to be led forth to the believer, enjoying him by faith, and comforting himself in Christ against all difficulties, troubles, and temptations: he must rejoice in Jesus Christ.
The third duty, is to endeavour communion-keeping with God in the course of new obedience in all cases, worshipping and serving God in sincerity of heart: he must be a worshipper of God.
As to the last thing holden forth in the apostle's words, which is the undoubted mark and evidence of the man regenerated and circumcised in heart, it standeth in the constant endeavour to grow in these three duties jointly, so as each of them may advance another; for many failings and short-comings will be found in our new obedience, and worshipping of God in the spirit. But let these failings be made use of to extinguish and abolish all confidence in our own parts and righteousness, and that our daily failings may humble us, and cut us off from all confidence in the flesh.
But let not these failings so discourage us, as to hinder us to put confidence in Christ; but by the contrair, the less ground of confidence we find in ourselves, let us raise so much higher the estimation of remission of sin and imputation of Christ's righteousness, and stir up ourselves by faith to draw more strength and ability out of Christ for enabling us to walk more holily and righteously before God. And having fled to Christ, and comforted ourselves in him, let us not turn his grace into wantonness; but the more we believe the grace of Jesus Christ, let us strive, in his strength, so much the more to glorify God in new obedience. And in the circle of these three duties, let us wind ourselves up stairs toward heaven; for God hath promised, that such "as wait on the Lord, shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint," (Is 40:31).
In the conjunction of these three duties, the evidence of regeneration is found. If there be not a sincere endeavour after all these three duties, the evidence of regeneration is by so much darkened, and short for probation: for it is not sufficient to prove a man regenerated, that he is driven from all confidence in his own righteousness, and filled with the sense of sin and deserved wrath; because a man that hath no more that, may perish in this miserable condition; as we see in Judas the traitor, whose conscience was burdened with the sense of sin, but did not seek mercy and pardon. Neither is it sufficient to boast of acquaintance with Christ, and profess great respect to him; because many do cry, "Lord, Lord!" who neither renounce their confidence in their own righteousness, nor worship God in spirit; for, of such Christ saith, "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of God," (Matt 7:21). Neither is it sufficient to pretend the worshipping of God in spirit: for, all they who think to be justified by their own works, do esteem their manner of serving God, true and spiritual service and worship; as may be seen in the proud Pharisee glorying before God in his own righteousness, and acknowledging that God was the giver unto him of the holiness and righteousness which he had. "I thank thee, O God," saith he, "that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican," (Luke 18:11). For, of this man, Christ saith, he returned to his house unjustified, that is, a man lying still in sin, unrecognised.
Neither is it sufficient to prove a man regenerated, to confess sin and bygone unrighteousness, and to promise and begin to amend his ways and future conversation; for, so much may a Pharisee attain. And there be many that profess themselves Christians, who think to be justified by the merits of their own and other saints' doings and sufferings, and do disdainfully scoff and mock at the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. How many are they also, who think their bygone sins may be washen away, and be recompensed by their purpose to amend their life in time to come? How many are they, who, being willingly ignorant of the righteousness of God, which is of faith in Jesus Christ, go about to establish their own righteousness, as the Jews did? (Rom 10:3). And how few are they who follow the example of the apostle, who carefully served God in spirit and truth, but did not lean to his own righteousness, but sought more and more to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, which behoved to be made up of his imperfect obedience of the law, but that righteousness which is by the faith in Jesus Christ? (Phil 3:9).
But that man, who daily in the sense of his sinfulness and poverty fleeth unto Jesus Christ, that he may be justified by his righteousness, and endeavoured by faith in him to bring forth the fruits of new obedience, and doth not put confidence in these his works when he hath done them, but rejoiceth in Jesus Christ the fountain of holiness and blessedness, that man, I say, undoubtedly is regenerated, and a new creature, for so doth the apostle describe him, (Phil 3:3).
"REGENERATION & the REGENERATE MAN" is chapter 3 of Therapeutica Sacra (or, the method of healing the diseases of the conscience concerning regeneration). The text for this article is taken from Select Practical Writings of David Dickson, Vol 1, issued by the Committee of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland for the Publication of the Works of Scottish Reformers and Divines. (Edinburgh: 1845), pp 211-25.