Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: God Save the Willing

There is a lot at stake in describing regeneration and coming to faith. Above all is the certainty that faith is genuine, leading to eternal life; its hope valid, its conduct legitimate. The reality of rebirth in Christianity is certain for one long and historical reason. Upon serious reflection, theologians from Irenaeus onward had a difficult time explaining the change: they found describing this new life in the Spirit elusive, living beyond the formula of baptism. Can Bavinck solve this complex riddle? We shall see.   

The New Testament presentation of rebirth and resurrection is summed up in hope. Bavinck writes, “Hope characterizes [the believer’s] whole lifestyle … it is not a static possession, but living, active, and strong.” Baptism represents faith and renewal of the inner-person as conducted by the person of the Holy Spirit. There is a new perspective in the believer: they walk in newness of life obtaining justification, adoption, and gain the assurance of adoption through the witness of the Spirit (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:6; 2 Cor. 1:22). Rebirth has less of a connection to calling in John than found in Paul. In John’s Gospel, rebirth is a work of the Father, “who gave his own to Christ … even before his incarnation.” Christ was, after all, the Logos though not everyone recognized him or received him (John 1:5, 9-11). Now, if regeneration is a response to a call -a receiving of faith from God- and not a ‘work’ performed to merit eternal life, how does that work?

I believe, help me in my unbelief

The sinful will of humans is responsible for unbelief. Pelagianism does not work in practice, nor any similar view that ascribes the final cause of salvation to the human will; it introduces grace merely as the restoration of volitional choice. Unless the right choice is made there is no salvation for that person: one minute they are capable, the next minute they are not. And it’s more exclusionary than one would imagine. To say that salvation consists in the choosing excludes infants who die prematurely. From the perspective of the congregation, the interest of faith (choice) rests entirely in the competency of the minister to present the gospel. What if, one Lord’s Day, at the critical moment the message of the gospel was bungled and the meaning confused? The chance to choose was lost. So it is far better and correct to say that God grants his grace freely to sinners he chooses out of his holiness, mercy, and infinite wisdom. I am willing, said our savior, be cleansed, is the gracious attitude of the New Testament.

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