To restate, the argument, regeneration is a gift provided in the NC and not otherwise. If right, then the next claim follows.
(2) Regeneration was not experienced until Pentecost.
The meaning of regeneration features in one of the ongoing disagreements between dispensational theology and covenant theology when we compare the experience of salvation before and after Pentecost. Covenant theology typically reasons that regeneration is necessary for saving faith (as in effectual calling and grace), so anyone experiencing saving faith was regenerate (e.g., Abraham, other OT saints). This reasoning is part of the assertions about the continuity of the people of God, the continuity of experience of salvation, and the combination of Israel with the church across history (resulting in the church’s replacement of Israel).
I question the premise that regeneration is necessary for saving faith because the OT does not speak of regeneration as an experience under the OC. The OT looks forward to the NC as a future reality that was fulfilled initially at Pentecost. Instead of identifying regeneration as the necessary provision of grace effectually for saving faith, we can guess that the Spirit of God worked in some other way to facilitate the saving faith of Adam, Eve and the rest of the OT saints. This work is similar to the opening of the heart (Acts 16:14, “the Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul”). This guess allows us to maintain the startling distinction of the NC as foretold in Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31.
This opening of the heart may explain (instead of positing regeneration) the faith of the disciples in Jesus’ ministry and the 120 gathered for Pentecost to receive the gift of the Spirit. Since the gift of the Spirit is closely bound up with the NC, and since the Spirit was not given until Pentecost, then it seems best to conclude that regeneration was not experienced until Pentecost, even for the disciples in the apostolic band. Before Pentecost, these men and women who believed in Jesus were just like other OC saints rightly related to God by faith.
The apostolic band were, as Hebrews 11:39-40 tells us, in the good position awaiting something better: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” I take “perfect” to mean entrance into the NC realities based on the completed work of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God. The unusual thing for the disciples who experienced the historical event of Pentecost is that they made the transition from the OC to the NC realities, while others lived either in the OC until death, or begin with God in the NC.
(3) Regeneration is only experienced through embrace of the gospel.
If the first and second claims are right that regeneration is bound up with the NC and not experienced until Jesus had made Pentecost possible, then it follows that regeneration is subsequently experienced only through the gospel. We see Peter stating this offer in his Pentecost message, connecting repentance and baptism for union with Jesus as the condition of receiving forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). These two features of forgiveness and the Spirit are clearly referring to the NC promised in the OT that Peter accessed earlier through quoting Joel 2:28-32.
This point of connecting regeneration and the gospel may seem so obvious that mention is not needed, but the relevance shows when we consider the question of soteriological inclusivism. A recent development in Christian theology, inclusivism is the hope that many people who do not believe the gospel have been included in salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ as “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner; see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 839-42). The theory goes that since the Spirit works universally in creation, then we can see universal work in salvation also, and not to be limited by the church’s proclamation of the gospel. This view is intended to alleviate the problem of those who, through no fault of their own, never hear the gospel. Unlike soteriological pluralism and universalism that diminish the real differences between world religions, inclusivism posits the wideness of God’s mercy to draw other sincere seekers of the truth while they may be circumstantially rooted in Islam, Hinduism, or some other non-Christian religion. Jesus is the objective provision of salvation, but God may include people who subjectively have no knowledge of the gospel. The optimistic recognition of the Spirit’s work to draw such ones to God is the changed lives in the areas of mercy and altruism that showed, for example, in Gandhi.
I cannot offer a detailed presentation and critique of soteriological inclusivism here (see Ron Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior? for a concise treatment), but my purpose is to observe how inclusivism fails on this point of the connection between the NC, regeneration, and the gospel. Were inclusivism to be true, then we must affirm that Gandhi, and whatever other candidates for inclusion among the pious and virtuous Muslims and others were regenerate, indwelt by the Spirit of God, and new creations at the core.
I recognize that great virtues are possible among people in non-Christian faiths (and among cults of Christianity), but the exhibition of virtues is far distant from the reality of regeneration promised in the NC. On the one hand, inclusivism claims far too much for virtuous religious people by counting virtues as symptomatic evidence of right relationship with God (through the Spirit of God). On the other hand, inclusivism counts far too little the rich NC reality of salvation promised through the gospel. Let us not make so superficial a correspondence between exhibition of virtues and salvation in Christ. If regeneration is only expected to yield production of virtues that can be replicated by human effort, then the reality of the NC is far dimmed from the bright promises in the Bible.
Finally, if these claims about the connection between the NC, regeneration, and embrace of the gospel are right, then every person who believes the gospel is fully regenerate, and is positioned in life-changing union to God according to the realities of the NC. This is a staggering claim when compared to the frailty of experience that many Christians feel from day to day in defeated and wayward living. Too often it seems that confessing Christians live as if the gospel were only a set of affirmations to be accepted rationally while we wait for the promised entrance into Heaven at death. Missing from much of our daily experience is the NC reality of regeneration to proceed through life in the newness wrought by God and powered existentially by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Regeneration means that the Christian already belongs to the new creation that is coming; the disciple of Jesus is fundamentally and ontologically an alien to the present order of things, including the normal ways of sin. The Christian is metaphysically and irreversibly a saint, and called by God to live from the new core (heart) as closely involved with God who animates us for his way of living in everything.