The Undomesticated Doctrine of Regeneration (An interview with Douglas Sweeney)
In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Born Again: Sovereign Grace in the Miracle of Regeneration,” Matthew Barrett had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas A. Sweeney about the 18th century Great Awakening, the theology of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, as well as the dangers of nominal Christianity. Sweeney is Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous books, his most recent being After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology, co-edited with Oliver Crisp.
What brought about the 18th century Great Awakening, who were its noted representatives, and what were its defining characteristics?
The revivals that Americans call “the Great Awakening” began in Europe, usually in places where the Pietists had been active. They quickly spread to the British Isles and Britain’s North American colonies, partly due to the missionary work of Pietists such as Nicholas Count von Zinzendorf’s Moravians. In the English-speaking world, their early leaders were the Methodists—Arminian Methodist preachers such as John and Charles Wesley, and Calvinistic Methodists such as the famous George Whitefield. In America, Jonathan Edwards came to be the most important revival spokesman in New England, while Gilbert Tennent and others spread revival farther south.
Is there a sense in which we can say that the 18th century Great Awakening was indebted to Reformation and Puritan thought?
Definitely. The leaders of the revivals were steeped in Reformation theology (both Lutheran and Reformed), while their emphases on personal faith, genuine conversion, and the ministry of the Word were fueled by movements for the further reformation of the church led by Puritans and Pietists in Britain, the Netherlands, and Lutheran territory farther south.
Was the doctrine of regeneration (the new birth) significant in the preaching of George Whitefield and why?
To say that regeneration was significant to Whitefield is an understatement. Whitefield’s preaching usually centered on the new birth. Whitefield felt a special burden as an evangelical clergyman in England’s national church to help people understand that there is a wide, eternal difference between nominal commitment to one’s cultural Christianity and vital, twice-born, Spirit-filled Christianity.
One of the most famous debates during this period is between George Whitefield and John Wesley on the subject of Calvinism and Arminianism. In what ways did these two men disagree with each other when it came to God’s sovereignty in salvation?
Whitefield was a Calvinist who taught that God has elected some (not all) for the blessings of salvation unconditionally, that is, in a way that was not based on anything that they would do. Wesley was an Arminian who taught that God has elected the saints based upon His foreknowledge of how they would respond to the offer of the gospel. Despite these differences, both men taught the doctrine of predestination. And both preached the good news to everyone who would listen.
Most know Jonathan Edwards for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But one of his best sermons is, “A Divine and Supernatural Light Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God.” What is this sermon about and why was Edwards’ message so important if his people were to have a biblical understanding of how God works in the heart of a sinner?
“A Divine and Supernatural Light” is about spiritual regeneration and the difference the Holy Spirit makes in the lives of true Christians. Edwards argued in this sermon that while the Spirit of God may “act upon the mind of a natural man” (that is, he may work upon unconverted people from without), “he acts in the mind of a saint as an indwelling vital principle.” He gives converted people “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them.” He gives them a sense, a taste, a relish and delight in the things of God. He gives them real, personal knowledge of the Lord. There is “a difference,” Edwards preached, “between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace.” When the Spirit enters one’s life, renovating one’s mind and heart, reorienting one’s affections, he gives one an existential acquaintance with God himself. As a tax-supported minister in a nominally Christian country, Edwards wanted to make sure that people understood the difference between nominal Christianity and the genuine Christian faith that the Spirit of God Himself effects in us.
When Edwards saw that his preaching was being used by the Spirit to awaken dead hearts, he also noticed that God was doing, as he called it, a “surprising work” of revival in the church at large. However, did Edwards have certain concerns as well?
Yes. Edwards knew that the devil can counterfeit religious zeal and use it to harm us. That is why he spent so much time teaching and writings about the “distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God.” In times of heightened religious intensity (like the time of the Great Awakening), Edwards encouraged people to “try the spirits” (1 John 4) and see if they were from God. And the best test, he said, of real, godly spirituality is to ask oneself whether it has enhanced one’s love for God, one’s conviction of the reality of the things revealed in the Bible, and has fueled one’s daily practice of Christian charity in the world. The devil does not counterfeit such things!
Moving forward, one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century was the revivalist Charles Finney. In what ways did Finney’s revivals (and the theology behind his revivals) differ so radically from those in the 18th century, especially in comparison to Whitefield and Edwards?
Finney was upset that so many Calvinists in his day used predestination as an excuse not to work for further revival. He believed that genuine revival requires the work of the Holy Spirit, but he also taught that God does not bless complacent people. Finney was something of a maverick who liked to rattle cages. So he taught that revivals are not bolts from the blue, but events that can be manufactured by prayer, planning, and zeal. Finney taught people how to orchestrate religious revivals. This has led both friends and foes to view revivals as mere exercises in moral and emotional manipulation.
In what sense would you say Evangelicals today are heirs of the 18th century Great Awakening and have we lost or maintained the great emphasis they had on the new birth and its necessity for entering the kingdom of God?
I think the Great Awakening and its spiritual and ecumenical emphases are what distinguish modern, interdenominational, international evangelicalism from other forms of orthodox Protestantism. The new sense of Christian identity and new ministry patterns yielded by 18th century revivals have made us who we are today. But they have also played a role in undermining state churches which, in turn, undermined the way that evangelical ministers like Edwards, Whitefield, and Wesley (all of whom were state-church pastors) preached for genuine conversion. After the evangelical movement rose to prominence in the West, many assumed that its members must be genuinely converted. But lots of free churches today—that is, non-state churches—are rife with superficial faith, merely nominal Christianity. This is a tragic irony. Evangelicals have domesticated the doctrine of regeneration. We need to study Edwards again, reapplying his supernatural understanding of conversion in our own situations. As he preached on John 3, “If there be such a thing as conversion, ‘tis the most important thing in the world; and they are happy that have been the subjects of it and they most miserable that have not.” We need to ask ourselves today whether the Spirit of God has given us a longing for God and His Word, and has filled our souls with wisdom and love for service in the world. We need to ask ourselves whether we’ve been supernaturally changed.
To read other interviews and articles, view the recent issue of Credo Magazine today!
Born Again: God’s Sovereign Grace in the Miracle of Regeneration
While doctrines such as election, justification, and sanctification typically receive all of the attention in theological conversations, the doctrine of regeneration is often forgotten. Yet, it is this doctrine that undergirds the entire order of salvation. It is the initiatory change in regeneration that results in everything else, from faith and repentance to justification, sanctification, and perseverance. All of these other doctrines owe their existence to that first moment when God breaths new spiritual life into the sinner’s dead corpse.
Regeneration, or the new birth, was certainly important to Jesus. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again he cannot enter the kingdom of God! Jesus goes on to highlight the sovereignty of the Spirit in the new birth as well, comparing him to the wind which blows wherever it pleases. This reminds us that since Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus there has been a long history of debate over exactly what it means to be “born again,” a debate that has preoccupied the best theological minds, including Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Synod of Dort, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and many, many others. The key questions in this controversial matter are these: Does God work alone (monergism) to create new spiritual life in depraved sinners, or does God and man cooperate with one another (synergism), man having the final say in whether God’s grace will be accepted or rejected? Also, does regeneration precede and cause conversion (faith and repentance), or is the Spirit’s supernatural work in regeneration conditioned upon man’s will to believe? We believe Scripture overwhelmingly supports the former. Anything else would compromise the sovereignty of God and rob him of his glory in salvation.
Join us in this issue as we explore the doctrine of regeneration, a doctrine so important that Jesus himself felt it was the first thing he needed to address on that dark night when Nicodemus approached him with the most piercing of spiritual questions.
Contributors include Matthew Barrett, Thomas Nettles, Jonathan Leeman, Douglas Sweeney, Leonardo De Chirico, Andy Naselli, and Tom Ascol.
Matthew Barrett, Executive Editor