Born again prior to faith? John Piper says “Yes.” Scripture says, “No.”

Are sinners “born again” as regenerated people before they believe in Christ or even have a single, God-fearing thought? What about Cornelius, the God-fearing Gentile in Acts 10 who had developed a long-standing reputation for being a devout man who feared God? Are we to assume he was born again years before hearing the gospel?

John Piper’s beliefs on being born again prior to faith leave him no “wiggle room” on the issue. For example he writes, “If you have one whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart, it is the work of God and the triumph of grace.” [1]

What sort of grace is Piper talking about? He answers that a few sentences later. “The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in God’s sovereign act of begetting his own children. We did not choose to be begotten any more than we chose to be raised from the dead or called or created. We were born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).” [2]

Piper’s questionable avoidance of quoting John 1:12

The careful reader will note how Piper attempts to quote John 1:13 to smuggle in the idea that one must first become a “begotten” child of God before one can even believe in God, much less “have one whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart.” However the idea that people become “born again” (i.e. begotten) children of God before they believe in Christ, can only be held at the expense of ignoring the preceding verse in John 1:12. Suspiciously this is exactly what Piper does.

When verse 13 is read in the context of verse 12 it becomes clear being “begotten” or (regenerated, born again) as a child of God is in response to people’s prior receiving and believing in the Son. We read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”[3]

Lets be clear about what John is saying. God did not give people “the right to become children of God” so that they can receive and believe. God gives them that right because they receive and believe. Becoming a regenerated child of God does not create faith so that we can believe—it is God’s sovereign response to faith because we believe. In no way does this mean we cause ourselves to be “born again.” For example the choice to believe in the Son is an act of the human will in response to God’s preceding, drawing grace.

However God’s choice to honor our belief by regenerating us anew in Christ is solely an act of his will. So while our belief in the Son results in our being born anew of God’s will—or “born again”— our belief is not the regenerating power/cause of new creation. By faith we are indeed placed in Christ, but becoming a new, regenerated creation in Christ requires a miracle of God’s power—hence we are “born of God.” Calvinists often err in confusing: (A) the condition of faith to become reborn in Christ with (B) God’s miracle of rebirth in Christ.

This error pervades Calvinism and betrays a category mistake. They confuse the divine means of new birth (a miracle) with the terms of new birth (faith).

Just as we should not confuse the flipping of a switch that turns on a light with the electricity that powers that light, so also faith may bring us into union with God, but the new creation that is birthed out of that union is “powered” by God alone.

Contrary to Piper, the light of God’s grace in Christ can be rejected

Piper attempts another approach to secure his view that sinners “dead in sin” must first be “born again” (regenerated) as a sovereign act of new creation and saving grace before they can believe in Christ. In the same sermon teaching he states, “The centrality of God in saving grace is seen in the sovereign act of new creation. A new creation happens when God says to a soul blinded by the god of this world, ‘Let there be light . . . and [creates in the darkened soul] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’” (2 Corinthians 4:6).”

Piper assumes that if we people are saved by grace, but not all are saved, then God’s saving grace (i.e. being understood as the light of the gospel in the face of Christ) must be a selective impartation of light that is sovereignly irresistible. However both the selective and irresistible nature of God’s light in the face of Christ is again undermined in the gospel of John—particularly 1:9-11. In particular, notice the unrestricted nature of Christ’s light and the possibility for it to be rejected.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:9-11).

Contrary to Piper’s claims, the light of God’s grace in the face of Christ can be rejected. Therefore it does not act upon sinners as an irresistible force or “sovereign act of new creation” that causes faith. Not even the context of Piper’s specific appeal to 2 Corinthians 4:6 aids his argument. As with John 1:9-11 the context is again unbelieving Jews whose stubborn resistance to the light of Christ is rendering them spiritually hardened and veiled behind the former glory of an old covenant passing away. In returning to 2 Corinthians, Paul states both the problem and the solution back to back.

The veil on the heart is taken away AFTER one turns to the Lord

“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:15-16).

The “when” and “how” of this passage reveals both human and divine agency. When is the veil removed? Only “when one turns to the Lord.” How is “the veil removed”? By a sovereign work of God. This is worth exploring more. The veil is not first taken away so that unbelievers can turn to Christ. It is removed as a result of turning to Christ. Whether we take it in a temporal or causative sense, the veil is taken away only in response to turning to Christ. This “turning to” is biblically understood as repentance—a word that literally means to “turn away from” and turn towards a new direction.

Herein we find the true balance of scripture between the God-intended, free will of human imagers of God and the sovereign will of God. As the light of the gospel goes forth the choice to repent and turn to the Lord is an act of the human will in response to that light. The veil over the heart is then removed as a sovereign act of God. The order is not to be missed. Turning to the Lord as an act of repentance precedes the sovereign work of God removing the blindness of the veil.

And we don’t need to waste time wondering if God has granted all Gentiles and Jews as a collective whole the opportunity of repentance to life. [4] The early church was hesitant to affirm this equal standing before God until the episode with Cornelius burst the old wineskin of their restrictive thinking.

Afterwards they declare, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

One cannot minimize the declaration of Acts 11:18 as meaning God only grants a selective repentance to some Gentiles, but not all. The entire teaching point of Cornelius to the early church was that Gentiles as a collective whole are no longer unclean. Hence they recognized God was granting repentance and the unfettered gospel to all Gentiles—not just some. To insist God selectively grants repentance only to some because God does not seek the salvation of all, completely overthrows Peter’s later declaration that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). [5]

The order of unveiling and beholding God’s glory in the face of Christ

With this in place lets return to Piper’s earlier appeal to 2 Corinthians 4:6 to justify irresistible, saving grace that brings about new creation prior to faith in Christ. Remember Piper holds that unless sinners, blinded by Satan, are first regenerated as a “sovereign act of new creation” they can neither “have a whisper of desire for God”, nor believe in God. For this reason Piper claims, “A new creation happens when God says to a soul blinded by the god of this world, ‘Let there be light . . . and [creates in the darkened soul] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).”

It is true the light of God’s glory in Christ has been shown in the hearts of believers, but the basis of beholding that glory was given earlier by Paul in the preceding chapter, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed in the same image…”

Paul says we behold the glory of the Lord, not with a veiled face, but an unveiled face. How and when does a sinner become unveiled? Paul already told us that too when he said the veil is removed “when one turns to the Lord” (3:16).

The order Paul presents to us is as follows: Turning to the Lord results in a sovereign unveiling > The removal of the veil allows us to behold the glory of God > Beholding the glory of God leads to transformation (i.e. regeneration).

If any Bible teacher, no matter how honored and esteemed, tries to teach sinners must be regenerated and “born again” as a sovereign act of new creation before they can turn to Christ in faith, they have a defective, theological view.

Cornelius: A conundrum for Piper’s “whisper of desire”

With all this said how should we understand being “born again” as God’s sovereign act of regeneration in Christ? In short it is true that being “born again” is God’s miracle of new creation that causes us to pass from death to life in a moment in time. But that is the very definition of salvation! And the scriptures are clear that salvation under the New Covenant does not precede faith—it is the result of faith.

Seeing it this way helps us understand Cornelius’s God-fearing faith and worship prior to knowing the gospel, and yet later being saved under God’s New Covenant terms of faith through the gospel.

This is where Piper’s view enters murky waters. For he wants to insist that one can’t even have a “whisper of desire” towards God unless they are first born again. And yet the Scriptures make it clear that before Cornelius had even heard about the gospel, he had been demonstrating for years far more than just a “whisper of genuine desire” towards God! Therefore the logic of Piper’s position requires him to assume Cornelius was already a “born again” child of God under the Old Covenant—long before he heard the gospel and was saved in the New Covenant.

Such is the conundrum when one places regeneration as a child of God before salvation by faith.

As is now obvious, Piper unwittingly does exactly this. He places salvation (i.e. becoming a child of God) prior to anyone even having even a “whisper of genuine desire for God in your heart.” He goes on to call this a “triumph of grace.” Yes—in Calvinism everything retracts back to a grace you can’t resist or reject. This is thoroughly misguided and unbiblical—but it is the greasy oil that keeps the machinery of Calvinism running without locking up. Sadly it simultaneously locks out multitudes of people from God’s redeeming love (Jn. 3:16) and desire that “all people be saved and come to a knowledge of him…” (1 Tm. 2:4).

And lest we think God’s desire that all be saved is vacuous and lacking purposeful intentionality, Paul backs it up by highlighting God’s purposeful, grace-filled action to see it fulfilled through his mediator “Christ Jesus… [who] gave himself as a ransom for all” (vs. 6).

[1] John Piper at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-god-centered-ground-of-saving-grace

[2] John Piper at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-god-centered-ground-of-saving-grace

[3] Those that resisted God’s preceding, drawing grace is revealed in passages like Luke 7:30 “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves” and Acts 7:51 “You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

[4] Being granted something is distinct from being forced into something. God’s “granting of repentance” should be seen as an opportunity for repentance in much the same way Paul sees persecution as an opportunity to suffer for Christ’s sake, telling Timothy “it has been granted to you… [to] suffer for Christ’s sake.” (Ph. 1:29). Paul did not mean by this that Timothy was being forced to suffer, only that Timothy should view his hardships as opportunities from God to identify with the sufferings of Christ and likewise suffer for his sake.

[5] The context is Peter’s comparison of the present world with the former world that was judged at the time of the flood. God was patient towards that former generation too, but God’s patient long-suffering has a limit. And when that former generation did not repent, the opportunity for further repentance closed and the time of judgment commenced. So too God is long-suffering with our present world, but his patience will not be infinite. Therefore Peter says God desires that “all people…should reach repentance”—i.e. while they still can. For this world is being stored up for judgment and when the time of judgement comes, the time of repentance is over.

About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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9 Responses to Born again prior to faith? John Piper says “Yes.” Scripture says, “No.”

  1. fromoverhere says:

    Thanks for this Strider.

    What they also say comes AFTER (their) regedneration is “born of the Spirit” “given new life” “born again” “living in Christ” “alive in Christ”.

    So….Calvinists say that dead people are “regenerated” (given life), then they express their faith, and are then given life (again) in Christ.

    So….Calvinists say that dead people are “regenerated” (given life) then express their faith, then are born again (again).

    So….Calvinists say that dead people are “regenerated” (given life) then express their faith, then are made alive (again) in Christ.

    Sproul’s famous “regeneration precedes faith” is also

    “(new life) regeneration precedes regeneration” and

    “(new life) regeneration precedes new life”

    The ordus salutis (they like to talk in Latin— cuz Augustine was a Catholic priest) is regeneration, foisted faith, then regeneration.

    No one would find their version by just reading the Bible. You have to “be taught” Calvinism. You have to be told that the regeneration that you thought was “new life in Christ” was really a regeneration which allows you to repent so you can be then regenerated (given life in Christ).

    • StriderMTB says:

      Right. And RC Sproul is also on record saying that his view of regeneration preceding faith is equal to the Holy Spirit indwelling a person prior to faith in Christ. As you note it pretty much collapses into God’s salvation preceding God’s salvation.

      • fromoverhere says:

        But it is all necessary because they come to the Scripture with the “given” (presupposition) that man being “dead in sin” means graveyard dead.

        But being “dead to sin” “buried in Christ” somehow does not mean “graveyard dead”.

        Their definition of dead (Totally Depravity… man only does evil all the time) —which says that man is incapable of hearing Christ’s call (“come unto me all who labor” “seek first the kingdom of God”) is not the same definition of dead for the Prodigal Son (who came to his senses though called “dead two times by Christ).

        They just make it say what they want when they want.

      • StriderMTB says:

        Yes, in describing the prodigal son as lost and dead I don’t think Christ could have been clearer as to the nature of what sin/rebellion does in our estrangement from God. “ Paul’s phrase “dead in sin” doesn’t mean inability to respond to God anymore than his phrase “dead to sin” means inability to respond to sin. “Dead” is not a synonym for inability in the Bible but rather separation.

      • fromoverhere says:

        Yes, and He could not have been clearer in explaining that “dead” men can “come to their sense” and seek the Father. But all that is a HUGE no-no in Calvinism.

  2. TS00 says:

    Good to see you posting again, Matt. Helpful thoughts, as always. It is difficult to imagine how Calvinists can simply ignore the order set forth in so many passages, yet they unblushingly do. Thanks for taking the time to lay it all out.

  3. heather says:

    Thank you, Matt, for all you’ve done to speak against Calvinism. I am linking to a couple of your posts on my anti-Calvinism blog (anticalvinistrant.blogspot.com). I started this blog after our church of almost 20 years was taken over by a dogmatic Calvinist. I appreciate those like you who have shared what they know about the dangers and errors of Calvinism. It’s definitely helped us on our journey out of that church. Blessings!

    • StriderMTB says:

      Thanks Heather, I appreciate the feedback. Feel free to link to as many articles as you want. I haven’t been posting too much lately, but hope to in the future. I have been working on a big book on spiritual warfare, and last year I self-published a small book about the atonement and the call of discipleship as seen through the lens of spiritual warfare. I presently write under a pseudonym here because once you are on the “naughty list” of my beloved Calvinist brothers and sisters 🙂 they a reputation of hunting down your books on Amazon to give them bad reviews. I may decide to forego that concern soon and start posting up content and chapters from books I have been working on. We shall see. Feel free to check out the book I self-published recently under my name Matt Bohlman. It is only 99cents for the kindle version. It is a parable and theological commentary called “The Fall and Redemption of Shadowmere.”

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