The precise timing of regeneration continues to be an issue that professing Christians disagree on. In the broader evangelical movement, several different views of regeneration are common. Frequently, well-known evangelical preachers speak as if regeneration is a consequence of faith or as if it follows faith. Other views of regeneration equate it with conversion, effectively identifying the moment we come to faith with the moment we get a new heart. Finally, there is the Reformed view that says regeneration precedes faith and is necessary for us to exercise faith in the Savior.
Ultimately, the biblical evidence demonstrates the truth of the Reformed view. Certainly, because regeneration is invisible, we cannot always tell the difference between regeneration and conversion. We cannot always make a sharp distinction in time between the point at which the Spirit gives us a new heart and the point when we first believe. Nevertheless, regeneration must precede faith according to John 3:3. Jesus says that we cannot even see the kingdom of God until we are born again, and how can we enter the kingdom if we cannot see it? In regeneration, the Spirit opens our spiritual eyes to the truth of Christ, and then we trust Him.
Ephesians 2:4–5 also supports the Reformed view of regeneration. Before we came to know Jesus as Savior, we all were dead in our sins, spiritually speaking. The death metaphor is important, of course, because dead people cannot do anything. We cannot will ourselves back to physical life. Our only hope is for someone to restore us to the land of the living. Being spiritually dead, we cannot raise ourselves to life. We do not want—indeed, we cannot want—anything to do with the one true God apart from the Spirit’s work. The initiative is His. The Holy Spirit raises us to new spiritual life, and we trust in the Savior. Thus begins our spiritual pilgrimage, as in our sanctification we seek to become more and more like Christ.
Since regeneration starts but does not conclude our spiritual walk, being born again does not end the struggle with sin. Actually, it intensifies this struggle. Regeneration ends the dominion of sin over us and reorients us toward the way of Christ. Yet the presence of sin remains, and we war against it (Rom. 7:7–25). We are called to put to death the lusts of the flesh. We thus are to remain vigilant, knowing that regeneration begins this war within us.