The Triune God produces all things in creation and new creation by his Word and Spirit. All things thus speak to us of God. God’s call as law comes to all people in nature, in history, and in a variety of experiences. While insufficient unto salvation, this call upholds human existence in society and culture, despite the ubiquity of sin. Though the restricted call unto salvation comes through the word of the gospel, it may not be separated from nature and history. The Logos who became incarnate is the same as he by whom all things were made. Grace does not abolish nature but restores it. Still, the special call of the gospel does not proceed from law and invite us to obedience, but it flows forth from grace and invites us to faith.
The call to faith must be universally preached; this is Christ’s command. The outcome must be left in God’s hands; we are simply to obey. The gospel is to be preached to human beings, not as elect or reprobate, but as sinners, all of whom need redemption. Of course, not to each individual person can it be said, “Christ died in your place.” But neither do those who preach a hypothetical universalism do that since they only believe in the possibility of universal salvation, conditional upon human acceptance. And this no one knows for sure. God’s offer is sincere in that he only tells us what we must do—believe. Since it is clear from history that the outcome of God’s call does not universally lead to faith, we cannot avoid the intellectual problem. It is not solved through weakening the call by expanding it for the purpose of greater inclusiveness. Acknowledging in humility the mystery of God’s will, we recognize that God’s own glory is its final purpose and believe that his Word never returns to him empty.
The call of law also prepares the way for the gospel, not in the Arminian sense of an evolution from preparatory grace to saving grace through human willing, but as the created natural foundation for salvation. God does link his work of grace to our natural lives; creation, redemption, and sanctification are the work of the Triune God in the divine economy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is sovereign and his grace is rich and varied. Following Augustine, Reformed theology distinguishes an external or revealed call from the savingly efficacious internal call of the Holy Spirit. This distinction honors the universality of sin, the need to have the word of proclamation take root in a sinner’s heart by a special work of God, and ascribes all of our salvation to God’s mercy and activity. This change is so dramatic that it is properly called “rebirth” or “regeneration.”
The notion of rebirth is found in other religions of the Ancient East, notably in mystery religions such as Mithraism. Attempts to explain the Christian understanding of regeneration by means of the dying and rising gods of the mystery religions are not very persuasive. Even considering the paucity of our knowledge about the mystery religions, their ideas and practices come from a different religious environment and worldview. The New Testament here rather builds on the Old Testament, where the whole people of Israel as well as individual persons are told that they need new hearts, a new birth only God can accomplish (Ps. 51:1–3). From the baptism of John through the preaching of Jesus and into the apostolic proclamation, the one consistent message is the need for μετανοια, for a radical turnabout, if one wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven. One must be “born from above” (John 3:6–8). By faith, Christ or his Spirit is the author and origin of a new life in those who are called (Gal. 3:2; 4:6) so that they are now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). While there is a difference between the Old Testament and New Testament in language and manner of presentation, the basic truth is the same. Whether rebirth is called “circumcision of the heart,” the giving of a new heart and a new spirit, a drawing from the Father, or a birth from God, it is always in the strict sense a work of God by which a person is inwardly changed and renewed. This change is signified and sealed in baptism.
In the missionary context of the early church, the rebirth signified by baptism was a momentous and life-changing event for the believer. Moving beyond this context, as the church began baptizing infants and children, the connection between baptism and regeneration had to be modified. In Western Catholicism, regeneration was increasingly understood in terms of the infusion of sacramental grace at the time of baptism. In the Eastern church, a similar result was achieved but thought of in terms of implanting a new seed of immortality. A new quality was infused into the soul, and baptism itself became essential for salvation. Remaining in the state of grace depends on the mediation of the church and its sacraments.
It is this sacramental system that the Reformation protested, restoring a direct relationship between God and the soul through the Holy Spirit. The Word of Scripture took priority over church and sacrament. This brought its own difficulties as the Anabaptists rejected church and sacraments as means of grace and made personal faith and confession the condition for baptism. In response, Lutherans again made regeneration dependent on baptism and, by implication, on the church, thus creating a dualism between primary regeneration, which precedes faith, and subsequent secondary renewal, which arises from faith. Reformed theologians wrestled mightily with this issue but found no solution satisfactory to everyone when it came to grounds for baptizing the children of believers. The attempt to ground it in a notion of prebaptismal regeneration satisfied some but ran aground on the reality that some who are baptized do not come to full faith as adults. Maintaining the continuity of the spiritual life proved difficult, and due to the Enlightenment, the notion of rebirth fell into disfavor and was replaced by humanistic notions of moral development, improvement, and nurture.