God is sovereign, and He works alone in the act of regeneration, as we saw in our look at monergism and synergism. That raises the issue of whether God uses means to bring a person from spiritual death to spiritual life. Does He use any created tools to regenerate sinners, or does He act directly?
What we are talking about is the immediacy of regeneration, and we affirm that regeneration is immediate. But we are not talking about immediate in the sense of time. Often, when we say something happens immediately, we mean that it happened in the moment. For example, a child who immediately obeys her parents acts right after they finish giving her an order. That is not what we mean when we say regeneration is immediate. Instead, we mean that God acts directly on the heart and soul of a person. He does not, for example, regenerate us in the act of baptism, as some theological traditions teach. Water baptism is not a means that God works in to guarantee regeneration in all who are baptized, though it is a sign of regeneration that the Lord is pleased to give to His people to strengthen their faith.
To say that God acts immediately to regenerate people is not to say that the Lord never works through means. He ordinarily creates faith in us through the preaching of the gospel, for we cannot be saved unless we hear about our sin and the work of Christ (Rom. 10:14–17). But the actual change of heart from which faith comes is produced in us directly and immediately by God. Only He can bring dead sinners to life (Eph. 2:4–5).
Today’s passage is typically used to support the immediacy of regeneration. When Mary came to Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb in response to the presence of Christ in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:41). No gospel was preached to John at this point. He was not baptized or circumcised. Yet, he leaped in the womb because he recognized Jesus’ presence. Such joy is possible in Christ’s presence only for those who have been given new life, so it is likely that John had that new spiritual life. And being in his mother’s womb, it could have come only if God had acted on him directly. His faith came later, after his birth, when he was capable of belief, but his faith was evidence of prior regeneration; his faith was not itself regeneration. Similarly, if we have saving faith, then we know we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit.