In an earlier post <here> we presented many passages which clearly indicate the ordo salutis (the order of salvation), as expressed by the apostle John when he wrote, “I have written these things (the gospel) so that you may believe and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Spiritual life comes through faith, not the other way around.
Since writing that article, Dr. James White has produced a program to address the non-Calvinistic perspective on one verse in particular: 1 John 5:1.
I had a renown Greek scholar, Dr. Brian Abasciano, on the podcast to specifically address White’s grammatical arguments, which you can listen to <here>; however, White expressed a concern on Facebook <here> about not feeling as if his argument was fairly represented. I addressed his concern on that Facebook post and will now seek to cover what I feel is the bigger issue being overlooked.
Many of you may be familiar with Dr. Sam Storms — he is a Calvinistic pastor who serves on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary (with John Piper), and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. His “tradition” is Calvinistic, yet he objectively observes the exact same thing that Dr. Brian Abasciano and I have observed about the clear intention of the apostle John in this passage.
Dr. Storms wrote:
John says in 5:1 that whoever is presently believing in Christ has in the past been born or begotten of God. I.e., a present action of believing is evidence of a past experience of begetting. Is John then saying that new birth or regeneration always precedes and causes saving faith in Christ? Although I believe regeneration (new birth) does precede and cause faith, I do not believe that is John’s point here.
When one examines these texts where the terminology of regeneration is used, one finds that John is concerned with describing the consequences or fruit of the new birth:
Question: “How may I know that regeneration has occurred? How may I know if someone has been born again?”
Answer: “That person will not practice sin (3:9; 5:18). That person will practice righteousness (2:29). That person will love the brethren (4:7). That person will believe in Christ (5:1). And that person will overcome the world (5:4).”
John’s point is simply that these activities are the evidence of the new birth and hence of salvation. Their absence is the evidence that regeneration has not taken place. He makes this point, not because he wants to demonstrate the cause/effect relationship between regeneration and faith, but because he wants to provide the church with tests by which to discern between true and spurious “believers.” –Dr. Sam Storms
(Thanks to Dr. Johnathan Pritchett for sending us this link)
I hope this is helpful in better understanding our argument about the “big picture” we believe is being missed by SOME Calvinists who approach this text with the perceived agenda of supporting their belief of pre-faith regeneration.
Secondly, I would like to address White’s comments regarding a Traditionalist (like myself) appealing the grammatical work of an Arminian (like Dr. Abasciano). White wrote,
“[Flowers] used that as the basis of asking his Arminian scholar (funny how he did not turn to his “Traditionalist” mentors in the SBC), Brian Abasciano, to respond.”
Apparently White is under the impression that scholars can only appeal to other scholars if they agree on every point of doctrine? Is every scholar White references in his works a Reformed Baptist scholar? I seriously doubt it. This can be added to a long list of White’s double standards discussed <here>, along with criticizing my use of the word “attack” in reference to his theological arguments, when he has used the same word in reference to my theological arguments.
If one were to read my original post on this topic, they would find this article from Dr. David Allen (a notable Traditionalist scholar) in the footnotes:
1 John 5:1
First John 5:1 states: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God . . .”29 “Whoever believes” is a present tense participle. “Born” is a perfect tense verb. Some Calvinists suggest the perfect tense indicates completed past action with continuing results and draw the conclusion that faith is the result of being born again. The argument is that the verb “born” is in the perfect tense denoting an action that precedes the faith in the participle “whoever believes.”
This is an unwarranted and erroneous interpretation. Consider two examples. John 3:18 states: “He who believes is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already. . .” “He who believes” is a present participle. “Not condemned” is a perfect tense verb. Yet, here it is clear that the “believing” precedes “not being condemned.” Consider 1 John 5:10, “he who does not believe God has made Him a liar. . .” “He who does not believe” translates a present participle. “Has made” translates a perfect tense verb. Here again, the perfect tense verb, “making God a liar,” is a result of the present participle, “not believing,” not its cause.
Many Calvinists argue that the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces a range of results expressed by present participles, and faith is one of them. However, exegesis always trumps systematic theology. Likewise, context and sentence structure trumps theology. Let’s compare John 3:18 with 1 John 5:1 to see if the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces the result of faith. Notice the order of events in John 3:18 is A then B. In 1 John 5:1 the order is B then A. Both make use of the perfect tense. The same grammatical structure that places being born of God before faith can also be used to describe justification as occurring after faith. See Rom 5:1. The grammar of the verses does not address an ordo salutis. The use of the perfect tense in Greek provides no support for the notion of regeneration preceding faith.30 To suggest otherwise is to fail to distinguish between tense and aspect in Greek verbs and verbals.
Furthermore, with respect to 1 John 5:1, contextually the simple initial act of believing is not under consideration by John. John is talking about the ongoing life of faith as a believer. Obviously, the new birth precedes the ongoing life of faith. But that is something altogether different from saying the new birth precedes the initial act of faith. John’s use of “born” nowhere precludes the possibility of faith preceding regeneration. One may argue for regeneration preceding faith, but one cannot argue against faith preceding regeneration. The most that can be said from the Greek present participle and perfect tense verb combination is that the actions are contemporaneous.
The broader context of John’s writings indicate he would not teach that regeneration precedes faith and elsewhere teach that faith is a condition for life as he does in John 20:31. This precludes the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.
Three conclusions, then, are in order:
1. There is no Biblical text that connects faith and regeneration in a grammatical structure that prescribes an order that supports regeneration preceding faith. Nor is there any statement in Scripture which precludes faith preceding regeneration.
2. There are biblical texts connecting faith and regeneration that support faith preceding regeneration.
3. There are texts that would seem to preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith. There is no Scripture anywhere that directly says regeneration precedes faith. That is a theological deduction made by some Calvinists that is driven more by their system than it is by Scripture. The Scripture says things like, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” as Paul said to the Philippian jailor in Acts 16.
* For this section, I have relied heavily upon the excellent work of Brian Abasciano, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? The Use of 1 John 5:21 as a Proof Text,” 307–22. Abasciano provides the best and most substantive Greek grammatical analysis of the issue with respect to 1 John 5:21 I have seen anywhere.
*A point well-made by Dan Musick in his post on this subject at [link removed]. Musick examines several texts to which Calvinists appeal in an effort to support the notion of regeneration preceding faith. <Source: http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_11-2_Fall_2014.pdf>
***Below is a recent update comment on Facebook from Dr. Brain Abasciano to Dr. White regarding a perceived misunderstanding:
“James, I have now listened to the relevant part of your show that I had not heard when interviewed. I can see that it changes the specifics of your argument so that you are not now arguing that the tenses themselves demand or particularly suggest that the action of the perfect indicative precedes the action of the present substantival participle (though you seemed to argue along those lines in Potter’s Freedom). Is that right? Can you clarify that for me? Do you agree that the combination of verb tenses in 1 John 5:1 (present participle + perfect indicative) does not itself demand or even suggest the action of the perfect indicative as preceding the action of the present participle? That is really what Leighton was focusing on and I was focusing on. So you and Leighton seem to have talked past one another a bit.
However, listening to the rest of your comments, you made some errors regarding Greek grammar/syntax and I still find your argument unpersuasive. Around the 59:43 mark, you said that when we have a present participle with a perfect finite verb, we are able to determine the relationship of the respective actions to one another. But that is not necessarily true, and it does not come from the grammar. There are general tendencies that can be assumed, but in any particular case, context would have to determine the relationship, and often it might not be clear because the author might not have meant to indicate it.
Then, around 1:02, you said, presumably of the basic tendency of Greek grammar, that the perfect is either concurrent or antecedent to the present participle. But that is false. As I documented in my Evangelical Quarterly article on 1 John 5:1, the tendency of Greek grammar is for the participle to be concurrent or to precede the action of the indicative. The present participle is especially a candidate for preceding when it is articular, as in 1 John 5:1. Of course, there is no particular tendency for the perfect indicative to precede the present participle. But as I explained in the interview, the rough simultaneity that often obtains can allow for logical order and precedence of one or the other. But that is not indicated by the tenses. They suggest simultaneity and allow for logical order to obtain.
In that same section of comments, you gave some odd reasoning for why the participle would not be concurrent in 2:29, reasoning that suggests misunderstanding of how simultaneity works between participles and indicatives. I do not think that practicing righteousness brings about becoming born again. But since that was the example you used, if the participle were antecedent there, it would not mean that every time a righteous act were performed, the person would be born, but that practicing righteousness would lead to the state of being spiritually alive, born again.
As for what seems to be your main argument, I believe what I said in the interview addresses that. The comments that have been quoted from Calvinist scholar Sam Storms also address it. Let me add here that your appeal to 2 Pet 1:1 and the Granville Sharp rule is misguided. Identification is the actual meaning conveyed by the Granville Sharp construction. (By the way, while I agree that the construction applies in 2 Peter 1:1, it is not just JW’s that contest it, but some legitimate grammarians. It’s not simply a matter of whether someone is orthodox or not for his opinion on the question of 2 Pet 2:1.) But the grammar/syntax of 1 John 2:29, 4;7, and 5:1 does not itself indicate the order of the actions involved. You know the order in 2:29 and 4:7 mostly from theology. We know that we don’t become born again by practicing righteousness or by loving. But this observation goes along with the fact that the main point of those texts is not to indicate which action causes which, but to give evidences of regeneration/ salvation in the interests of the assurance of salvation, which scholars recognize as one of the main purposes of the epistle (not particularly to indicate what regeneration causes).” – Dr. Abasciano
ADDED: Part 2 of Dr. Abaciano’s reply to Dr. White’s entire argument can be found HERE.