The first is great error in the doctrines of regeneration is to downplay or even deny the need for regeneration. This is the Pelagianism. One of the reasons that the Synod of Dort regularly characterized the Remonstrant position as “Pelagian” was because the Remonstrants did downplay the need for regeneration in this sense. Pelagius and his followers denied the federal headship of Adam. According to Pelagius, when Adam fell he merely set a bad example. He argued that we did not fall in him and that we are all, in effect, Adam.
Christians have often been tempted to fall into one of three great errors when it comes to the doctrine of conversion (or regeneration). Historically, the word regeneration has signified two related but distinct ideas:
a) Sanctification, i.e., the progressive Spirit-wrought, graciously given growth of the believer in holiness, i.e., conformity to Christ by the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new. Among the Fathers of the Church regeneration was regularly used in this first sense. The pre-Dort Reformed theologians used the word regeneration in this sense.
b) The granting of new life. Louis Berkhof defines regeneration, used in this sense, thus:
Regeneration is that active God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man , And the governing disposition of the soul is made holy. But in order to include the idea of the new birth as well as that of the “begetting again,“ it will be necessary to complement the definition with the following words:… “And the first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.“ (Systematic Theology, 469, emphasis original)
With the rise of the Remonstrants and the controversy over the doctrine of salvation, the Reformed came to use the word regeneration principally in this second sense.
The first is great error in the doctrines of regeneration is to downplay or even deny the need for regeneration. This is the Pelagianism. One of the reasons that the Synod of Dort regularly characterized the Remonstrant position as “Pelagian” was because the Remonstrants did downplay the need for regeneration in this sense. Pelagius and his followers denied the federal headship of Adam. According to Pelagius, when Adam fell he merely set a bad example. He argued that we did not fall in him and that we are all, in effect, Adam. Each of us is born without Adam’s original sin and able choose not to sin, to obey, to be perfect, and thereby enter into fellowship with God and eternal life. Even when we do fall, he argued, the effects of the fall are not that grave. In short, for Pelagius, we only become sinners when we sin.
According to Augustine, following the Apostle Paul and the prophet Jeremiah, as we have already seen, our relationship to Adam is rather different and the consequences of the fall are rather more grave. Scripture teaches that Adam is the federal head of all humans, that we were all “in” Adam when he chose to disobey God, to transgress his holy law. When he sinned, we sinned. When he died spiritually, we died spiritually. When sin entered the world through Adam, death entered the world. We suffer and die physically in this world because of consequences of the fall. We are born dead in sins and trespasses. After the fall, the human heart is desperately wicked. Our minds are darkened. Our wills are bent in on ourselves. Our affections are perverted. Now, by nature we do not love God and neighbor but rather, by nature, we hate him and our neighbor. We transgress daily and add to our condemnation. Our situation is desperate and, apart from God’s sovereign grace, hopeless.
Another great error in the doctrine of regeneration is to so identify the giving of new life with means and instruments (e.g., baptism) as to think that whoever receives the sign and seal necessarily (ex opere operato) receives new life. The medieval church came to think and speak this way. The Roman communion speaks this way about baptismal regeneration.
The third great error is to think or say that God does not use instruments or means to bring about new life in his elect. This error has been is widely held among American evangelicals for 200 years. The confessional Protestant churches in the 16th century (Lutheran and Reformed) characterized this divorce of new life from the “due use of ordinary means” (to use the language of the Westminster Assembly) as “enthusiasm.”
The Synod of Dort addressed these errors of and problems created by the Remonstrants. In their 1610 Remonstrance (complaint) the Arminians wrote the following under the fourth head of doctrine:
ART. IV. That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.
The words of the Remonstrants must be read carefully. When they thought of grace, they were not thinking (nor speaking) of God’s sovereign, unconditional grace. In Remonstrant (Arminian) theology particular people are not elect. Remember too, that in their system, Christ died to accomplish salvation for no one in particular. In their view, God had established a system and Christ made salvation possible so that whoever exercised his free will to meet the conditions of the system becomes elect and benefits from Christ’s work.
Thus, when they speak of grace they are not defining as we do, as God’s sovereign unmerited favor whereby Christ accomplished salvation for his elect and the Holy Spirit efficaciously applies it to those for whom Christ died. Rather, in the Remonstrant system, grace is “assisting” and “cooperative.” This is the language of the fourteenth-century Franciscan theologian, William of Ockham and the fifteenth-century Franciscan theologian, Gabriel Biel. They had said, in effect, that God is prepared to “co-act” (Ockham) with those who take advantage of the endowments (nature/grace) given to all. Biel notoriously wrote “to those who do what lies within themselves (i.e., capitalize on the natural endowment given to all) God denies not grace.” The Protestant reformers and churches denounced this theology as Pelagian. Indeed, there were medieval Augustinians who denounced this theology as sheer Pelagianism. The Remonstrants brought it back into the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. This is another reason why Synod denounced the Remonstrant theology as Pelagian (and not merely “semi-Pelagian.”) In effect, the Remonstrance said what Ben Franklin said in the 18th century: God helps those who help themselves. That is a lie from the pit. The gospel is that God helps those who are dead in sins and trespasses and utterly unable and unwilling to help themselves.