The nature of regeneration: Does Nicodemus allow God to regenerate him?

Begin with self; end with self

Peter S. Williams is an apologist and philosopher, and, therefore should be a stickler for grammar. Here, alas, is a part of one of his (short) sermons where he disallows the text to say what it says. He inserts the word “allow” into the text of his sermon on “John 3:1-17” (Jesus with Nicodemus). Here is an excerpt, John 3:3-9, from his text.

(My italics verse 8)

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God! 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. 8 The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. 9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

Williams – “So you see what happened. Jesus was saying that in order to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus had to be born anew or from above by allowing God’s grace to forgive him, to raise his human nature, his flesh up into the spiritual life of God in a transformative relationship. Williams inserts into the text “by allowing God grace.”

Those who allow God to regenerate them (born from above) are called Arminians, after Jacob Arminius. They believe that God requires their permission to save them. According to Arminians, the fact that no one born of the Spirit has the foggiest idea where the Spirit comes from has no bearing on the “fact” that the the Holy Spirit is impotent to save without permission from the one He wants to save. Towards the end of the sermon, Williams quotes John 1:12-13: “12 But to many as did receive (received) him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Consider the underlined did receive (received) him in verse 12:

In English “did + receive” can be used either as an alternate form of “received” or to emphasise “receive.” In his sermon, Williams stresses “those who DID receive him.” To a Calvinist “did receive” in this passage simply means “received.” To an Arminian, it means those who “DID decide/decided” to receive him.


“Holy Spirit, I know nothing about where you come from; all that matters is that you came, and I know you will act like a gentleman and first knock with your prevenient grace on the lid of my coffin and ask my permission to raise me from the dead.”

When one comes to verse 13,, it’s hard to see how the Arminian can avoid tying his will in a knot: Verse 13 – “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” But avoid he certainly does. Here is my conversation with an Arminian pastor.

Me – What does “not of blood” mean?

Pastor – It means not of human descent.

Me – What does “not of the will of the flesh” mean?

Pastor – It means “not of a man’s decision.”

Me – What does “not of the will of man” mean?

Pastor – Not of a husband’s decision; the same as the previous “not of the will of a man’s decision.”

In sum, for this pastor, “human decision” and the “will of man” cannot refer to the will of the seeker but to the sexual desire – to the willy – of the seeker’s Poppa. This leaves the precious will of the seeker intact and free to choose to be born again. If this is true, then when we read the last part of the verse “but born of God,” what this must mean for the Arminian is “but born of God and of the believer. The Arminian will say, “No, only God is involved because it clearly says “born from above,” not born from above and below. What I do believe, he could very well think, is that although I don’t know where the Spirit comes from, I do know when it arrives at my door. He knocks, I open my door and invite him to do waht he is longing to do – pull me out of my coffin.” That is what the Arminian understands by:

Ephesians Chapter 2

1 And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Even if an Arminian says, “I only did .000000000000000000001% and God did 99.000000000000000000099%, the fact of that matter is that it is that teeny flick of a solitary eyelash that redeems you from the pit and makes you a child of God. It would have to be the same teensy eyelash response that sends you to damnation. Such eternal consequences determined by a human, a human eyelash!

I end with an excerpt from Stephen Charnock’s (1628 – 1680) “A discourse of the nature of regeneration”?(The best books were written 200 or more years ago):

“It is difficult to describe exactly the nature of regeneration.
1. Because of the disputes about the nature of it; whether it be quality, or a spiritual substance;
whether, if a quality, it be a habit or a power, or whether it be the Holy Ghost personally. Many
controversies the wits of men have obscured it with. The Scripture discovers it to us under the terms of the new creature, a new heart, a law put into us, the image of God, a divine nature; these, though Scripture terms, are difficult to explain.
2. It is difficult, because it is visible, not in itself, but in its edicts. We know seed does propagate itself, and produce its like, but the generative part in the seed lies covered with husks and skin, so that it is hard to tell in what atom or point the generative particle does lie. We know we have a soul, yet it is hard to tell what the soul is, and in what part it does principally reside. We know there are angels, yet what mortal can give a description of that glorious nature? It is much like the wind, as our Saviour describes it: John iii. 8, ‘The wind blows where it lists, and thou hears the sound thereof, but can not tell whence it comes, nor whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ The wind, we feel it, we see the effects of it, yet cannot tell how it arises, where it does repose itself, and how it is allayed; and all the notions of philosophy about it will not satisfy a curious inquirer. So likewise it is in this business of regeneration; the effects of it are known, there are certain characters whereby to discern it; but to give a description of the nature of it is not so easy.”

2 Corinthians 5:17-21
If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. 18 But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
20 We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. 21 Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

The question is: Is God really knocking at whosoever’s heart, begging to come in, but failing – sovereignly so – most of the time?

One thing is certain: if regeneration begins with self, it will end with self.

Related posts: Being born again and a husband’s one-track mind)
God’s will and God’s swill in salvation: Thoughts on the Arminian-Calvinist controversy

3 thoughts on “The nature of regeneration: Does Nicodemus allow God to regenerate him?

  1. Charnock said above that it is difficult to describe regeneration. He explains why:

    It is difficult, because of the natural ignorance which is still in the minds of the best. A man cannot understand all iniquity, for there is a ‘mystery of iniquity;’ neither can he fully understand this work, for there is a ‘mystery of godliness,’ 1 Tim. iii. 16; not only in the whole scheme of it without, but in the whole frame of it in the heart. It is called the ‘hidden man of the heart’, 1 Peter iii. 4; hidden from the world, hidden from reason, hidden from the sight sometimes of them that have it; a man can hardly sometimes see it in his own heart, by reason of the steams of corruption; as a beautiful picture is not visible in a cloud of smoke. The blindness the god of this world has wrapped us in, that we might not know God, or the things of God, is not wholly taken off: And even what we know of the truths of God, suffers an eclipse by our carnal conceptions of them; for all the notions we frame of them have a tincture of sense and fancy.

    It is hard for those to conceive it who have no experience of it. If we speak of the motions of natural corruption, as wrath, passion, distrust of God, and enormous sins, men can easily understand this, because we have all sad experiments of an inward corruption; but the methods and motions of the Spirit of God in this work are not comprehended, but by those who have felt the power of it. The motions of sin are more sensible, the motions of the Spirit more secret and inward, and men want as much the experience of the one, as they have too much of the other. Hence it is that many carnal men love to have the nature of sin ripped up and discovered; partly, perhaps, for this reason among others, that they can better understand that by the daily evidence of it in their own practices; whereas other things, out of the reach of their experience, are out of the grasp of their understanding; and therefore seem to them paradoxes and incredible things: the spiritual man is not judged or discerned by any but them that are spiritual, 1 Cor. ii. 15. It is certainly true, that as a painter can better decipher a stormy and cloudy air than the serenity of a clear day, and the spectator conceive it with more pleasure: so it is more easy to represent the agitations and affections of natural corruption, than the inward frame of a soul wrought by the Spirit of God. I shall therefore describe it consonantly to the Scripture thus: Regeneration is a mighty and powerful change, wrought in the soul by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit, wherein a vital principle, a new habit, the law of God, and a divine nature, are put into, and framed in the heart, enabling it to act holily and pleasingly to God, and to grow up therein to eternal glory. This is included in the term of a new creature in the text. There is a change, a creation, that which was not is brought into a state of being.

    (Stephen Charnock. A Discourse of the Nature of Regeneration)

  2. The other thing that got me thinking when I was reading your post is that if we contribute .0000000001 % part of it in our “decision” for him, than essentially there is no effectual grace since what makes it effectual really is our decision…

  3. Spot on.
    The issue on grace in regeneration comes to this:
    Arminian – the only grace involved in regeneration (and hence justification and salvation) is a soupçon of “prevenient” grace (pre – come, venient – before ), thus preceding your human decision to allow Jesus to regenerate (save) you. There is no such kind of grace in the Bible. It is derived from the confusion/stubbornness to cling to the idea that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman, who thus won’t drag you out of your spiritually deadISH state – not dead, dead, dead – but will wait for your blinking permission.

    Bible – The only saving grace is effectual grace. It comes and does what it is designed for – not to possibly save but really save. It’s called irresistible grace because the dead can’t resist; they’re “quickened” – raised from death. Ephesians 2:1-10).

    Jewish Calvinist – I was a dead ISH (Hebrew – “man”)
    Jewish Arminian – I was deadISH.

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