Which Comes First?
Does the Bible teach that people must be born again (i.e. regenerated) before they can repent and believe? This has been debated among evangelicals going back to the Reformation, and can be seen even earlier in the writings of Augustine. Calvinists and Lutherans teach monergism, which means they believe people must be born again before a person can repent and believe. Arminians believe that being born again is a divine gift given to people when they place their trust in Christ. In this post we will look at one of the common proof-texts for monergistic regeneration.
Many broken Microphones
6 “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
If you have spent any time debating the issue of Monergism vs Synergism this verse has probably been raised at some point. The argument usually goes something like this:
Non-Calvinist: “People must trust in Christ to be born again!”
Calvinist: “How could anyone trust in Christ who is bound in sin, corrupted in their heart?! Look at Deuteronomy 30:6, it is God that must circumcise a person’s heart before they can follow God!” (Drops mic)
This has led to many broken mics, but it has not answered the question. Let’s break the first rule in theological Twitter debates and take a look at the context which will not only tell us whether regeneration comes before repentance and faith, but also will help us start to answer the question of what regeneration actually is.
Don’t ruin my Proof-text with the context!
1 Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God drives you, 2 and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you. 5 Then the LORD your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers.
In Deuteronomy 28 Moses had just rehearsed the curses that would come on the nation of Israel if they did not faithfully follow the Law of Moses. The primary curse they were warned of was exile from the land of Promise. Moses here speaks of this exile as imminent, since he knew they were a rebellious people. When they find themselves in exile they are commanded to “return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul.” If they do this, they are given the promise that God will bring them back from exile, no matter how far and wide they have been scattered. And God will then bless them and prosper them in the land.
6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. 7 Also the LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you. 8 And you will again obey the voice of the LORD and do all His commandments which I command you today. 9 The LORD your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the LORD will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers,
In verses 3-5 the people of Israel are told they will be restored to their land, blessed and caused to prosper, if they will repent and submit to God’s law. But in verses 6-9 He explains in what ways they will be blessed and prospered. They will be victorious over their enemies (vs 7), the produce of the land will be blessed (vs 9) and God will rejoice over them as His special people once again (vs 9). But we cannot skip over our monergistic proof-text! The greatest blessing He promises to give the repentant Israelites is newly circumcised hearts (vs 6). These new hearts will have a new and sustained desire to obey God and follow His commands (vs 8). And this renewed zeal to obey will lead to God rejoicing over His people and blessing them because they will be loving Him and serving Him with their whole hearts! What a joyful arrangement!
It is worth noting here that this is a New Covenant promise that corresponds to the promises found in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. The return from exile in Babylon happened before God came to Israel in His Son Jesus Christ. And they only received this new heart when they were renewed by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
10 “if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
The section closes by referring back to verse 2. All the blessings that have been promised in verses 3-9 are conditional promises. These will only be given to the people of Israel if they will turn back to the Lord and obey Him with their whole hearts.
Regeneration is for the New Covenant
So, Deuteronomy 30 is not a proof-text for monergistic regeneration, at least not if we include the context. But it does teach us something important about regeneration itself. If we seek to apply it in its proper New Covenant context we will see that those who repent of their rebellion against God and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, will be given the gift of a newly formed heart; a heart that despises sin and hungers for righteousness. This new heart does not automatically obey God, but God by His Spirit influences the believer towards righteousness. As we see in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31:31-34, God’s Holy Spirit writes God’s law on the heart of the New Covenant believer. Individuals are still responsible to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. But they do so knowing that God is working in them both to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
Another inconvenient passage
Before closing this post let me quote one more relevant passage: Deuteronomy 10:12-16
12 And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good? 14 Indeed heaven and the highest heavens belong to the LORD your God, also the earth with all that is in it. 15 The LORD delighted only in your fathers, to love them; and He chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as it is this day. 16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.
Here in Deuteronomy 10:15 the Israelites are reminded that they are God’s chosen people. And God makes it clear that they were not chosen for their own sake, but they were chosen for the sake of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the same way we are not chosen in ourselves, but because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.” They were chosen to be the nation through which salvation would come to the world; we are chosen to rule and reign with Christ forever as God’s own dear children.
In the Old Covenant they were required to circumcise their hearts and not be rebellious. They were called to fear the LORD their God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD their God with all their heart and with all their soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes. And we also are commanded to repent of rebellion and abide in Jesus Christ, obeying His commands.
John 15:4-6, 10
4 “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. 6 “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned…. “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.