Regeneration and Faith, according to Two British Confessions
In 1582, John Davidson (c. 1549-1603), the powerful Scottish Presbyterian preacher known to some in his day as 'the Thunderer,' received a letter from a Huguenot correspondent in La Rochelle, the bastion of Calvinism in western France. Soon after this Davidson wrote to another Calvinist contact, the English Puritan John Field (1545-88). 'It is no small comfort, brother,' he told Field, 'to brethren of one nation to understand the state of the brethren in other nations.' 1
This seemingly casual remark is illustrative of the deep sense of solidarity that prevailed among Calvinists in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One can rightly speak of a Calvinist International,2which, though it received its strength from numerous tributaries besides the life and work of John Calvin (1509-64), shared common distinctives of doctrine, practice, and spirituality.
Divine Initiative in Bringing Grace to Sinners
One of the most important of these distinctives was the conviction, grounded in Scripture and attested to by experience, that entry into the Christian life is wholly dependent upon God's grace. Consider, for instance, the Tetrapolitan Confession of 1530, one of the earliest Reformed confessions, which was prepared in 1530 by the German Reformers Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478-1541), and Caspar Hedio (1494-1552), and which maintained that 'the beginning of all our righteousness and salvation must proceed from the mercy of the Lord'. In being merciful to fallen men and women, God first 'offers the doctrine of truth and his Gospel' through various preachers that he sends forth to herald the good news about Christ. Due to the fact, though, that 'the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God' (1 Cor. 2:14), 'God', the Tetrapolitan Confession continues:
causes a beam of his light to arise at the same time in the darkness of our heart, so that now we may believe his Gospel preached, being persuaded of the truth thereof by his Spirit from above, and then, relying upon the testimony of this Spirit, may call upon him with filial confidence and say, 'Abba, Father,' obtaining thereby sure salvation, according to the saying: 'Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'3
Here regeneration is likened to the illumination of a dark place and its effect is radical indeed. It causes those who are in spiritual darkness to see the truth of the gospel and to believe the gospel as they hear it preached. And vital in this work of regeneration is the Holy Spirit, who enables men and women to call upon the Lord for salvation.
Similarly, at the outset of the Reformation in Francophone Geneva, Calvin, possibly with the aid of Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), the fiery evangelist who had first introduced Reformed truth to the city, asserted in the 1536 Geneva Confession that, by God's Spirit:
we are regenerated into a new spiritual nature. That is to say that the evil desires of our flesh are mortified by grace, so that they rule us no longer. On the contrary, our will is rendered conformable to God's will, to follow in his way and to seek what is pleasing to him. Therefore we are by him delivered from the servitude of sin, under whose power we were of ourselves held captive, and by this deliverance we are made capable and able to do good works and not otherwise.4
In this statement are themes Calvin would return to again and again in the years to come in his voluminous correspondence, sermons, and various tracts and treatises. Regeneration is liberation from a slavish dominion, that of 'the evil desires of the flesh'. Prior to regeneration the human will is in bondage and can make no moves towards doing what is genuinely pleasing to God. But with regeneration there is 'a total transformation and renovation of our wills'.5
A Reformed Patriarch of Constantinople
Or look at a later example, from the Confession of Faith written by Cyril Lucaris (1572-1638), the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople who embraced the Reformed Faith in the second decade of the seventeenth century and was later martyred for his Evangelical convictions.6
In his remarkable Confession, first published in Western Europe in Geneva in March, 1629, Lucaris declared:
We believe that free will is dead in the unregenerate, because they can do no good thing, and whatsoever they do is sin; but in the regenerate by the grace of the Holy Spirit the will is excited and in deed worketh but not without the assistance of grace. In order, therefore, that man should be born again and do good, it is necessary that grace should go before; otherwise man is wounded having received as many wounds as that man received who going from Jerusalem down to Jericho fell into the hands of thieves, so that of himself he cannot do anything.7
As George Hadjiantoniou notes, Lucaris here 'describes with very dark colours the state of the soul before regeneration'.8He compares the unregenerate to the poor man who was mugged on the Jericho road. After being attacked and left for dead, that man could do nothing to help himself. Similarly the unregenerate are 'wounded' spiritually and 'can do no good thing'. What they need is the grace given by the Spirit so as to be born again. Then, and only then can they do what is good.
In order to better understand this Reformed consensus on the subject of regeneration and faith I have chosen to focus on two confessional documents. Though both stem from the British Isles, they are written, as we shall see, for somewhat different contexts. But each of them bears witness to the 'sense of international solidarity' among sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Calvinists that has been noted above.9The first is the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), written by John Knox (c.1514-1572) and five others just as the Reformation triumphed in Scotland. It would play a significant role in moulding and shaping the character and religious convictions of numerous Scots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The second text is the Irish Articles (1615), adopted by the Church of Ireland at its first convocation and largely drawn up by James Ussher (1581-1656), who was later Archbishop of Armagh. Unlike the Scottish Confession, the Irish Articles would remain the convictions of only a few in Ireland. If Ussher hoped that this statement of faith would help in the winning of Ireland to the Reformed Faith, he was to be disappointed.10
The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560)
This confession was drawn up in 1560 upon the recommendation of the Scottish Parliament.11It followed a political revolt by Protestant nobility that secured Scotland for the Reformation and ended what is known the 'Auld Alliance' between the Roman Catholic forces of Scotland and France. The Confession is the result of the work of John Knox and five colleagues12who wrote the Confession within four days of its being commissioned. Approval of it was given by the Scottish parliament on August 24, 1560, though it would not be formally ratified until 1567. It would remain the doctrinal standard of the Church of Scotland until the Westminster Standards were adopted in 1647. The first three editions of the Confession appear to have been in Scots.13
The Confession consists of twenty-five articles which are in broad agreement with the theology of other Reformed Confessions of the era. In the words of W. Stanford Reid, the Confession
expresses the convictions of men who were thoroughly convinced that the Calvinistic or Reformed doctrines alone are those which represent full-orbed Christianity.14
Reid points out the significance of this confessional document when he states that it summed up the Reformation's triumph in Scotland, for it 'set forth its (i.e. the Reformation's) principles for all to receive and follow'.15
The article that deals with regeneration and faith at length is Article 12, entitled 'Faith in the Holy Ghost'.
This our faith, and the assurance of the same, proceeds not from flesh and blood, that is to say, from no natural powers within us, but is the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; whom we confess God, equal with the Father and with his Son, who sanctifies us, and brings us in all verity by his own operation; without whom we should remain for ever enemies to God, and ignorant of his Son, Christ Jesus. For of nature we are so dead, so blind and so perverse, that neither can we feel when we are pricked, see the light when it shines, nor assent to the will of God when it is revealed, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus quicken that which is dead, remove the darkness from our minds, and bow our stubborn hearts to the obedience of his blessed will. And so, as we confess that God the Father created us when we were not; as his Son, our Lord Jesus redeemed us when we were enemies to him; so also do we confess that the Holy Ghost does sanctify and regenerate us, without all respect of any merit proceeding from us, be it before or after our regeneration. To speak this thing yet in more plain words: as we willingly spoil ourselves of all honour and glory of our own creation and redemption, so do we also of our regeneration and sanctification; for of ourselves we are not sufficient to think one good thought; but he who has begun the good work in us, is only he that continues us in the same, to the praise and glory of his undeserved grace16
There are three noteworthy points about this statement that relate to the subject of regeneration and faith.
First, Christian faith and the subsequent assurance of that faith, the Confession affirms, do not arise from mere human insight. They are a direct result of the Spirit's supernatural work. As Scriptural proof the compilers of this Confession looked to four texts, one from the Gospel of Matthew and three from Christ's farewell discourse in John 14-16. 17The one from Matthew is Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:17 about Peter's declaration that Jesus is 'the Christ, the Son of the living God'.
This declaration of the truth about Christ is something that God the Father revealed to Peter. It was not an insight that a fallible, fallen human being like Peter could have arrived at on his own. The Johannine texts all relate to Jesus' teaching about the Holy Spirit's ministry. His ministry is to be one of teaching (John 14:26), teaching that is particularly centred on the words and deeds of Christ. His work among humanity is shaped by his character as the Spirit of truth (John 15:2.6), and as such he will teach what is true, especially about Christ (John 16:13).
According to earlier statements in the Confession, Christ is 'very God and very man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person'.18And though he never ceased to be 'clean and innocent' and the 'well-beloved and blessed Son of his Father,' he was crucified and 'suffered for a season the wrath of his Father, which sinners had deserved'. By his death he made 'full satisfaction for the sins of the people'.19And since 'it was impossible that the dolours of death should retain in bondage the Author of life,' Christ rose from the dead 'for our justification', and so 'brought life again to us that were subject to death and the bondage of the same'.20Moreover Christ is 'the only Head of his kirk, our just Lawgiver, our only High Priest, Advocate, and Mediator'21Genuine faith, the Confession is thus arguing in Article 12, is a persuasion about the truth of these vital matters relating to Christ's person and work – as well other central matters of the Christian faith that had been laid out in the previous eleven Articles – a persuasion that is the handiwork of the Spirit.
Second, that the Holy Spirit is well qualified to bring men and women to such saving faith in Christ is seen in the fact that he is God, co-equal with the Father and the Son. A classical, biblical Trinitarianism had already been affirmed in the first Article of the Confession when it was stated that God is 'one in substance, and yet distinct in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost'. 22The deity of the Spirit is important in this matter of regeneration since only One who has invincible power can overcome the insuperable barrier to salvation posed by our fallen human nature, which is a direct result of the Fall of Adam.
A Conscious Departure from Roman Catholicism
The impact that this historical event had upon humanity was spelled out in Article 3. There it was stated that this event had caused the 'image of God (to be) utterly defaced in man'. The result was that all of Adam's progeny became 'enemies to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin'. As W. Stanford Reid notes, this forceful statement leaves no room for sinners to save themselves, either by their own works or by anything other fallen creatures can do for them.23
Fallen humanity thus finds itself in a dreadful state. In Article 12 this state is described as one of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13), of complete blindness to divine realities (John 9:39; Rev. 3:17), and of utter perversity of will that refuses to heed God (Matt. 17:17; Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41). The sole remedy is the power of the Holy Spirit, who alone can 'quicken that which is dead' (Eph. 2:1; Col.2:13; John 6:63), 'remove the darkness from our minds' (Mic. 7:8), and 'bow our stubborn hearts to the obedience of his blessed will' (1 Kings 8:57-58). As the closing words of Article 3 of this confession put it, dead sinners must be:
regenerated from above: which regeneration is wrought by the power of the Holy Ghost, working in the hearts of the elect of God an assured faith in the promise of God, revealed to us in his word; by which faith we apprehend Christ Jesus, with the graces and benefits promised in him.24
This radical affirmation of the essential sinfulness of all human activity before regeneration and the exercise of saving faith flies in the face of sixteenth-century Roman Catholic thought. The latter – typified, for example, in the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-63) – assumed that the sinfulness of human beings had not so bound their wills that they could not cooperate with God's grace in preparing themselves to receive the Spirit's saving grace.25The Scottish Confession unequivocally rejects the possibility of such collaboration between the sinner and the Spirit. The sinner is utterly dead to God and nothing he or she does can aid or further the Spirit's quickening work.
Third, the end of this article sounds a further 'adversarial note' against Roman Catholicism.26Both late mediaeval Catholic theology and the promulgations of the Council of Trent essentially constructed a merit theology in which God ultimately gives eternal life as a reward to those who co-operate with his grace and do meritorious deeds.27The closing sentences of Article 12, however, underscore the fact that the Spirit's work in regeneration is purely 'undeserved grace'. Neither anything a sinner does before regeneration nor anything he or she does afterward is to be regarded as deserving of the life that the Spirit of God gives.
Just as the Father brought us into being from non-existence, as it were, and the Son redeemed us when we were in a state of enmity with God, so the Holy Spirit bestows life on the undeserving, those who possess absolutely nothing to merit his favour. Moreover, from the theological vantage-point of this Confession any talk of human merit not only contradicts the scriptural emphasis of salvation by grace alone, but also robs God of his glory.
The Irish Articles (1615)
Due to the fact of English hegemony in Ireland, a Reformed Church was established as the state church in that land. But until 1615 this church body, the Church of Ireland, did not have a statement of faith that corresponded, for example, to the Thirty-nine Articles (1563) of the Church of England. In 1615, James I called the first convocation of the Church of Ireland to deal specifically with this issue.28The result was the Irish Articles, which were chiefly drawn up by James Ussher, who at the time was Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin.29Ussher was renowned as the leading British biblical and patristic scholar of his day and was also a staunch defender of Episcopal church government. He was, as well, widely respected for being staunchly Calvinistic to the core and for his winsome, gentle character.30As D. F. Kelly observes, the Irish Articles are 'considerably more Calvinistic' than the Thirty-nine Articles.31Arranged under nineteen headings, the one hundred and four articles strongly set forth, among other things, God's sovereignty in predestination – 'God hath predestinated some unto life, and reprobated some unto death' 32– the typical Puritan view of the Lord's day,33and the view that the Pope is the Antichrist.34What is amazing, given Ussher's convictions about episcopacy, is that there is not a word about church government in the document.
The key articles that relate to regeneration and its fruit are Articles 32-33 under the heading 'Of the communicating of the grace of Christ':
32. None can come unto Christ unless it be given unto him, and unless the Father draw him. And all men are not so drawn by the Father that they may come unto the Son. Neither is there such a sufficient measure of grace vouchsafed unto every man whereby he is enabled to come unto everlasting life.
33. All God's elect are in their time inseparably united unto Christ by the effectual and vital influence of the Holy Ghost, derived from him as from the head unto every true member of his mystical body. And being thus made one with Christ, they are truly regenerated and made partakers of him and all his benefits.35
Conscious Opposition to Arminianism
The wording of the first of these Articles has been taken almost verbatim from the eighth and ninth of the Lambeth Articles, which had been drawn up in 1595 by a committee under the chairmanship of John Whitgift (c. 1530-1604), the Archbishop of Canterbury who is usually remembered for his strong antipathy to Puritanism. These nine articles had powerfully affirmed a 'predestinarian theology of grace' and had been drawn up in response to a controversy at the University of Cambridge over Calvinism, a forerunner of the later Arminian controversy.36Article 32 of the Irish Articles begins with a clear allusion to Jesus' teaching in John 6:44 that for a person to come to Christ he or she must be drawn to the Saviour by God the Father. Since not all human beings come to Christ, it must then be the case that not all of them receive grace to do so. Those who do receive such grace are described by Article 33 as 'God's elect.'
An earlier article, Article 15, had denominated such individuals as those who are 'predestinated unto life.' 37All of the elect or predestined do indeed in due time receive sufficient grace to bring them to Christ.38These Articles maintain that this grace is given to them by the 'effectual and vital' power of the Spirit, who unites them to Christ and so brings them into a union that entails regeneration.39Regeneration here is particularly viewed as part of God's effectual calling of individuals. Although a later article dealing with justification attacks the whole Roman Catholic notion of merit,40that anti-Catholic note is not at all evident in the treatment of regeneration in Article 12. Rather, regeneration is presented as part of the ordo salutis, and explicitly linked to predestination and effectual calling.
This perspective on regeneration clearly reflects Ussher's own tendency to view salvation as a whole through a predestinarian lens. For example, in a sermon entitled The True Intent and Extent of Christ's Death and Satisfaction upon the Cross, which was published in 1617, the Irish theologian declared:
(T)he Lamb of God, offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, intended by giving sufficient satisfaction to God's justice, to make the nature of man which he assumed a fit subject for mercy, and to prepare a medicine for the sins of the whole world, which should be denied to none that intended to take the benefit of it; howsoever he intended not by applying this all-sufficient remedy unto every person in particular to make it effectual unto the salvation of all, or to procure thereby the actual pardon for the sins of the whole world.41
The treatment of regeneration in Article 12 also reflects, however, the beginning of what would be a massive controversy within the international Calvinist community over the teaching of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a professor at Leiden. Arminius and his followers maintained, among other things, that predestination was simply God's advance knowledge of who would actually respond to the gospel, that Christ's death obtained for every human being the possibility of salvation, and that the Holy Spirit's regenerating grace was not necessarily irresistible.42Ussher could not have been oblivious to the growing storm over Arminianism. The Irish Articles are unequivocal in their rejection of any hint of this theological position.43Consider Article 14 in this regard, where the Irish Articles draw upon the second of the Lambeth Articles to state that:
The cause moving God to predestinate unto life is not the foreseeing of faith, or perseverance, or good works, or of any thing which is in the person predestinated, but only the good pleasure of God himself. For all things being ordained for the manifestation of his glory, and his glory being to appear both in the works of his mercy and of his justice, it seemed good to his heavenly wisdom to choose out a certain number towards whom he would extend his undeserved mercy, leaving the rest to be spectacles of his justice.44
The treatment of regeneration in the Scottish Confession seeks to dismantle every inkling of the merit theology of Roman Catholicism, while the need to respond to a new foe, Arminianism, seems to have shaped the way in which the Irish Articles deal with regeneration and explicitly embed it in the ordo salutis (order of salvation). These differences aside, they reveal two commonalities to all Reformed thought in this period: a desire to highlight that salvation is due to pure grace alone and that thinking anything less is injurious to the great end of human existence – the glorifying of God alone.