Friday, February 16, 2007

Some Thoughts on John 1:12

What comes first, regeneration or conversion (faith/repentance)? Most people seem to agree that regeneration and conversion occur simultaneously in terms of temporal/chronological order, but many people disagree about the logical order. Five-point Calvinists believe that regeneration precedes conversion in logical order. In contrast, many non-five-pointers believe that conversion precedes regeneration in logical order. I believe that John 1:12 is a verse that is relevant to this controversy:

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (NASB)

General agreement exists concerning the temporal/chronological order in the verse. Lenski voiced the opinion of many scholars in this regard:

“The two aorists έλαβον and έδωκεν occur simultaneously. The instant of receiving Christ is the instant of receiving the gift of childhood. . . . The gift is here called ‘right to become God’s children.’ Yet the infinitive γενέσθαι is an aorist and thus punctiliar and hence cannot mean that at some later time these persons would develop into God’s children. This aorist infinitive expresses action that is simultaneous with that of the two preceding finite aorists έλαβον and έδωκεν—in other words, the moment of accepting Christ, which is the moment of becoming God’s children, i.e., the moment of regeneration.”

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), 61.

This simultaneous quality refutes the position of James P. Boyce:

“The relation of regeneration to conversion will, therefore, appear to be one of invariable antecedence. . . . There is not only antecedence, but in some cases an appreciable interval. . . . Between it and regeneration must intervene in some cases some period of time until the knowledge of God’s existence and nature is given, before the heart turns, or even is turned towards that God.”

James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1887), 380-381.

Can any conclusions be reached about the logical order of repentance and conversion when looking at this passage? Tom Nettles answered in the negative:

“The emphasis of this passage is not on the order of events (i.e., receiving first, then the giving of authority, and so on) but on the inevitable coexistence of ‘receiving’ and sonship as a gift of God. . . . In conformity with the birth figure, the interpreter should understand the word sons. This word is not an emphasis on adoption, as in Ephesians 1 and Romans 8, but focuses on community of nature.” (emphasis in original)

Thomas J. Nettles, By His Grace and for His Glory (Lake Charles, LA: Cor Meum Tibi, 2002), 288.

I believe that a logical order is indeed indicated by the verse. In a translation of a Greek sentence, the order of the clauses can be changed. Notice the NIV translation of the passage:

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.”

The clauses are in a different order in regard to each other in the NIV than they are in the NASB. The syntactical order and context within a Greek clause, however, are important. Thus, they become children of God rather than the children of God become them. Who are the ones who become children of God? The ones that received him, who are believing, were given the right to become children of God. The word “become” indicates a change in status. The receiving, believing people were given the right to become something different—children of God. If John had meant to say, “The people were given the right to become receiving, believing children of God,” he would have used a different syntactical structure.

A few more relevant quotes by scholars follow:

“There were some who did open their hearts to Him. To these He gave the right (and the power) to become the spiritual, not merely the cosmic, children of God, to those who believe on His name. Thus He made faith in Himself the touchstone to membership in the family of God.”

A. T. Robertson, The Divinity of Christ in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1916), 44.

“Believers, from their knowledge of God in Christ (xvii. 3), become children of God, by being born of God (comp. iii. 3; 1 John iii. 9), i.e. through the moral transformation and renewal of their entire spiritual nature by the Holy Ghost; so that now the divine element of life rules in them, excludes all that is ungodly, and permanently determines the development of this moral fellowship of nature with God, onwards to its future glorious consummation (1 John iii. 2; John xvii. 24).” (emphasis in original)

Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John, trans. William Urwick, ed. Frederick Crombie, 6th ed. (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1979), 58.

“The privilege and right of those who ‘receive’ Christ, i.e. those who ‘believe on His name,’ is that they may become τέκνα θεου; but this (Jn. Suggests) is not an inherent human capacity. . . . The ‘children of God’ are all who ‘believe in the Name’ of Christ.”

J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, ed. A. H. McNeile (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), 16.