Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

 

Many Calvinists teach that regeneration precedes faith. They say that a person must be born again before he believes. They argue that new life comes before faith.

John Piper, a Calvinistic pastor, puts it this way:

“We can say, first, that regeneration is the cause of faith… Having been born of God results in our believing. Our believing is the immediate evidence of God’s begetting.” [1]

Gordon Olson, a non-Calvinistic scholar, writes:

“Extreme Calvinists put the new birth before faith, since they believe that spiritually dead humans cannot exercise faith and, therefore, need to be born again before they can believe.” [2]

I would not agree with Olson that this doctrine is necessarily an “extreme” form of Calvinism because most of the mainstream Calvinists today do adhere to it. Instead, I would argue that this point has not always been uniformly understood and adopted in the same way by all Calvinists, [3] which is typical with many of the most controversial points within the Calvinistic scheme.[4]

regenerationfaithsproulThe Calvinistic teaching has wrongly exaggerated the effects of man’s fallen condition resulting in a misinterpretation of man’s responsibility in light of God’s clear revelation. Calvinists say they believe men are “responsible” but they do not mean what most people think when they hear the word “responsible” (able-to-respond freely and thus guilty for that response).

What Calvinists mean is that mankind is justly punished even though they were born “unable-to-respond” willingly to God’s revelation. They do not mean that mankind is morally capable of responding to God’s appeals to be reconciled from their fallen condition (as implied in 2 Cor. 5:20, John 3:16 and elsewhere).

Calvinists insist that man is born dead in sin and therefore “corpse-like” in his abilities to respond to God’s life giving truth. Therefore, according to their logic, God must bring the corpse back to life so that he will certainly believe God’s revealed truth.[5]

Some Calvinists will argue that the order of regeneration and faith is a logical order not a temporal one, meaning that the two happen simultaneously within time. They teach that at the moment a person is born again he will come to faith. The moment he is regenerated he also places his trust in Christ. It all happens in an instant of time. Yet logically as we think about this transaction, we must put a causal order to it. Does the Bible indicate that a person must be regenerated so that he can believe or does the Bible teach that a person must believe in order to be regenerated? Do we need life in order to believe or do we need to believe in order to have life? That logical order is what is in dispute.

What is not in dispute is that regeneration is the sovereign act of God whereby He imparts His very life and His very nature to the believing sinner (John 1:12-13; Titus 3:5). Man’s first birth is natural; his second birth is spiritual and supernatural. His first birth makes him a member of a fallen race; his second birth makes him a member of a redeemed race. His first birth gives him a depraved nature (Eph. 2:3); his second birth makes him partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). The moment a person is born again he receives a new life (John 6:47; 1 John 5:12) and a new position as a child of God (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1-2). In short, he is a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).[6] We can all affirm these truths.

But what does the Scripture actually say about the logical order of new life and man’s responsibility in attaining it? Which comes first, new life or faith? Let’s observe:

Ezekiel 18:30-32

“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“Repent, Turn away…Rid yourselves…”
“…get a new heart and a new spirit.”
Verse 32 makes it even more simple:

“Repent and…”
“…live!”
Life comes from repentance, not the other way around.

Acts 11:18

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“Repentance unto…”
“…life”
The Gentiles were not granted life unto repentance, but just the opposite according to the text. And the gospel is the means God grants mankind the ability to believe. He sent the gospel first to the Jews and then the Gentiles which enabled their faith response (Rom. 1:16, 10:14-17).

John 5:40

“yet you refuse to COME TO ME TO HAVE LIFE.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“Come to me…” (through faith)
“…to have life.”

John 6:53

“I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“Unless you eat…drink” (by faith)
“…you have not life in you.”

John 6:57

“so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“the one who feeds on me…” (by faith)
“…will live”

John 20:31

“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“these are written…” (scriptures)
“…that you may believe…”
“…by believing you may have life…”
Life clearly is a fruit of faith and repentance, not the other way around.

Acts 15:9

“He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“He purified their hearts…”
“…by faith.”
It does not say He purified their hearts by regeneration so as to make them have faith. Clearly a purified heart is a fruit of faith, not the other way around.

John 1:12-13

“Yet to all who did receive 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 right to be born of God is given only to those who believe.

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…all who did receive him…who believed…”
“…he gave the right to BECOME children of God…”
You are not even given to right to become a child of God, much less be born again as his child, UNTIL you “receive him” and “believe in his name.” And while placing our trust in Christ is man’s responsibility, the work of regeneration is all of God’s doing. It does not come by way of inheritance, marriage, works or striving (Rom. 9:30-32).

Galatians 3:26

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“You are all sons of God…”
“…through faith in Christ…”
Obviously, becoming a son (born of God) is a fruit of faith, not the other way around.

John 12:36

“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“Believe in the light…”
“…so that you may become children…”

Ephesians 1:13

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“when you heard the message of truth…when you believed
“you were included in Christ…you were marked in him…”

Galatians 3:2, 5

“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?… So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…received the Spirit…”
“…by believing what you heard…”

2 Corinthians 3:14-16

“But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…anyone turns to the Lord…” (by faith)
“…the veil is taken away.”

1 Timothy 1:16

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…those who would believe in him…”
“…may receive eternal life.”

Colossians 2:12

“…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…baptism, in which you were also raised…”
“…through your faith…”

James 1:18

“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”

The order clearly laid out is as follows:

“…give us brith…”
“…through the word of truth…”

Calvinists teach the word of truth will certainly be rejected by the unregenerate, thus how can the apostle say that the word may be the means of new birth? Birth must precede the word if Calvinism is true, and that is not what the text clearly indicates.

The Philippian jailer inquired, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). If Paul was Calvinistic he should have replied, “You can do nothing to be saved. You were born corpse-like dead in your sin and a dead man can do nothing. If God makes you alive then you will be convinced to believe our gospel.” But Paul does not hesitate to simply say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Believe so as to have new life. Repent so as to live! That is the gospel appeal sent for all to hear it and respond.


[1] John Piper Sermon: Accessed online here.

Consider this article from Dr. David Allen of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1 John 5:1:

1 John 5:1

First John 5:1 states: “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God . . .”29 “Whoever believes” is a present tense participle. “Born” is a perfect tense verb. Some Calvinists suggest the perfect tense indicates completed past action with continuing results and draw the conclusion that faith is the result of being born again. The argument is that the verb “born” is in the perfect tense denoting an action that precedes the faith in the participle “whoever believes.”

This is an unwarranted and erroneous interpretation. Consider two examples. John 3:18 states: “He who believes is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already. . .” “He who believes” is a present participle. “Not condemned” is a perfect tense verb. Yet, here it is clear that the “believing” precedes “not being condemned.” Consider 1 John 5:10, “he who does not believe God has made Him a liar. . .” “He who does not believe” translates a present participle. “Has made” translates a perfect tense verb. Here again, the perfect tense verb, “making God a liar,” is a result of the present participle, “not believing,” not its cause.

Many Calvinists argue that the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces a range of results expressed by present participles, and faith is one of them. However, exegesis always trumps systematic theology. Likewise, context and sentence structure trumps theology. Let’s compare John 3:18 with 1 John 5:1 to see if the use of “born” in the perfect tense produces the result of faith. Notice the order of events in John 3:18 is A then B. In 1 John 5:1 the order is B then A. Both make use of the perfect tense. The same grammatical structure that places being born of God before faith can also be used to describe justification as occurring after faith. See Rom 5:1. The grammar of the verses does not address an ordo salutis. The use of the perfect tense in Greek provides no support for the notion of regeneration preceding faith.30 To suggest otherwise is to fail to distinguish between tense and aspect in Greek verbs and verbals.

Furthermore, with respect to 1 John 5:1, contextually the simple initial act of believing is not under consideration by John. John is talking about the ongoing life of faith as a believer. Obviously, the new birth precedes the ongoing life of faith. But that is something altogether different from saying the new birth precedes the initial act of faith. John’s use of “born” nowhere precludes the possibility of faith preceding regeneration. One may argue for regeneration preceding faith, but one cannot argue against faith preceding regeneration. The most that can be said from the Greek present participle and perfect tense verb combination is that the actions are contemporaneous.

The broader context of John’s writings indicate he would not teach that regeneration precedes faith and elsewhere teach that faith is a condition for life as he does in John 20:31. This precludes the possibility of regeneration preceding faith.

Three conclusions, then, are in order:

1. There is no Biblical text that connects faith and regeneration in a grammatical structure that prescribes an order that supports regeneration preceding faith. Nor is there any statement in Scripture which precludes faith preceding regeneration.

2. There are biblical texts connecting faith and regeneration that support faith preceding regeneration.

3. There are texts that would seem to preclude the possibility of regeneration preceding faith. There is no Scripture anywhere that directly says regeneration precedes faith. That is a theological deduction made by some Calvinists that is driven more by their system than it is by Scripture. The Scripture says things like, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” as Paul said to the Philippian jailor in Acts 16.

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29 For this section, I have relied heavily upon the excellent work of Brian Abasciano, “Does Regeneration Precede Faith? The Use of 1 John 5:21 as a Proof Text,” 307–22. Abasciano provides the best and most substantive Greek grammatical analysis of the issue with respect to 1 John 5:21 I have seen anywhere.
30 A point well-made by Dan Musick in his post on this subject at [link removed]. Musick examines several texts to which Calvinists appeal in an effort to support the notion of regeneration preceding faith. <Source: http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_11-2_Fall_2014.pdf>

[2] C. Gordon Olson, Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, p. 39.

[3] R. C. Sproul believes that regeneration precedes faith. But in spite of his doctrine, he once wrote the following: “Once Luther grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans, he was reborn” (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 1993 edition, p. 144). He must have written these words in haste because to be consistent with his theology he should have said it this way: “Once Luther was reborn, he grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans.” If regeneration precedes faith, then this would make faith unnecessary since the person would already be saved. If a person is regenerated, then he is born of God, a member of God’s family and a possessor of eternal life. If you are a member of God’s family and a possessor of eternal life, then you are already saved. So what need is there for faith? Charles Spurgeon recognized the folly of saying that the sinner must be regenerated before he can believe: “If I am to preach the faith in Christ to a man who is regenerated, then the man, being regenerated, is saved already, and it is an unnecessary and ridiculous thing for me to preach Christ to him, and bid him to believe in order to be saved when he is saved already, being regenerate. Am I only to preach faith to those who have it? Absurd, indeed! Is not this waiting till the man is cured and then bringing him the medicine? This is preaching Christ to the righteous and not to sinners.” [Sermon entitled The Warrant of Faith].

[4] Examples of other points where Calvinists simply do not agree among themselves:

(1) Atonement: Phil Johnson, President of Grace to You ministries, writes, “But second, don’t imagine that there is just one view for the Limited Atonement position and another view for the Unlimited Atonement position. As if there are two polar opposites here and they compete against each other. This is not really an either/or position even among Calvinists. And in fact, historically, the most intense debates about Limited Atonement have come over the past 400 years, they’ve all been intramural debates between Calvinists, among Calvinists… There are at least six possible Calvinists’ interpretations of it [scripture]… I want to encourage you read Andrew Fuller and Thomas Boston. Read what people like Robert L. Dabney and William G. T. Shedd and B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject of the atonement. Read John Owen too, but don’t imagine that John Owens’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ represents the only strain of Calvinist thought on the issue. It doesn’t. In fact, far from it.”

(2) God’s Love for all: John MacArthur writes, “I am troubled by the tendency of some-often young people newly infatuated with Reformed doctrine-who insist that God cannot possibly love those who never repent and believe. I encounter that view, it seems, with increasing frequency… Unfortunately, Pink took the corollary too far. The fact that some sinners are not elected to salvation is no proof that God’s attitude toward them is utterly devoid of sincere love.”

(3) Lapsarian Controversy:

Calvinists are seriously divided among themselves and always have been. There is Supralapsarianismvs. Sublapsarianism vs. Infralapsarianism. ‘The Supralapsarians hold that God decreed the fall of Adam; the Sublapsarians, that he permitted it’ (McClintock & Strong). The Calvinists at the Synod of Dort were divided on many issues, including lapsarianism. The Swiss Calvinists who wrote the Helvetic Consensus Formula in 1675 were in conflict with the French Calvinists of the School of Saumur. There are Strict Calvinists and Moderate Calvinists, Hyper and non-Hyper (differing especially on reprobation and the extent of the atonement and whether God loves all men), 5 pointers, 4 pointers, 3 pointers, 2 pointers. In America Calvinists were divided into Old School and the New School. As we have seen, the Calvinists of England were divided in the 19th century.

Whenever, therefore, one tries to state TULIP theology and then refute it, there are Calvinists who will argue with you that you are misrepresenting Calvinism. It is not so much that you are misrepresenting Calvinism, though. You might be quoting directly from various Calvinists or even from Calvin himself. The problem is that you are misrepresenting THEIR Calvinism! There are Calvin Calvinists and Thomas Fuller Calvinists and Arthur W. Pink Calvinists and Presbyterian Calvinists and Baptist Calvinists and many other sorts of Calvinists. Many Calvinists have never read Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion for themselves. They are merely following someone who follows someone who allegedly follows Calvin (who, by his own admission, followed Augustine).

(4) God’s genuine desire for all to be saved: Watch this CLIP

(5) God’s permissive decree and his implication in bringing about moral evil: See <LINK>

(6) The “order salutis” (the temporal vs. logical order)

[5] More on this point is discussed HERE and HERE, with many references.

 

[6] See http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/reformed/regenera.htm

 

323 thoughts on “Does Regeneration Precede Faith?

  1. Daily reading NT is in 2 Cor 7:8-16.

    14 I had told him how proud I was of you—and you didn’t disappoint me. I have always told you the truth, and now my boasting to Titus has also proved true! 15 Now he cares for you more than ever when he remembers the way all of you obeyed him and welcomed him with such fear and deep respect. 16 I am very happy now because I have complete confidence in you.

    ——-
    Paul is proud of them and tells them that they did not disappoint him (right in God’s eternal Word!). That certain is a “matter that can cause them to boast.” They had to “muster up the behavior” that Paul brags about. But…. we don’t boast. We just thank God for helping us. But still Paul says it was their actions and “gives them credit.”

    Titus cares for them more because of their obedience and respect.

    Paul is happy now and has complete confidence in them. All this sounds so “man-centered”.

    Does any of this “count”? I mean did they do anything? Or was all their obedience and faith given to them irresistibly. I mean… does what we do matter or is it all planned about before time began and this is just Paul’s way of saying “good job” (or rather “kudos to you”) to people who had nothing to do with any of it?

    Of course we all live our lives like what do matters! Spend time with your family! Help your kids with the homework! It matters! It can change their direction and help them make wise choices in life!

    We all believe this…but some theologies dont teach it.

    1. FOH writes, “Paul is happy now and has complete confidence in them. All this sounds so “man-centered”….does what we do matter…It matters! It can change their direction and help them make wise choices in life!.We all believe this…but some theologies dont teach it.”

      This is “believer-centered.” Paul here speaks to believers and speaks to their growth in sanctification. All theologies teach sanctification – don’t they?

  2. Reading Acts 17-18 for an article I am writing.

    2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

    A. Paul reasoned with them….. what does that mean if they are “too-dead” to hear anything? You cannot reason with a corpse…. but you reason with a person can respond.

    B. He was explaining and proving the Messiah. Why? They would be given faith or not given. You cannot prove anything to a “too-dead” man.

    C. Some of the Jews were persuaded. Persuaded? Persuaded to what? To believe? It is interesting how Calvinists want to take a spiritual-sounding, high-road and say man has nothing to do with it (faith is given, belief is given), yet Scripture keeps putting it this way everywhere.

    Is the Scripture deceiving us that Paul’s “reasoning” had something to do with it?

    Is the Scripture deceiving us that Paul’s careful “explaining a proving” had something to do with it?

    Is the Scripture deceiving us that them “being persuaded” had something to do with it?

    Nope.

    If no reasoning, explaining, proving, can do anything to “persuade” a “too-dead” man until he is given faith, and once he is given that faith, he is “irresistibly made” to believe, then why are there all of these verses that sound so contrary to that idea?

    Let’s take the Scripture at what it says. Beautiful were Paul’s feet to take the good news to where they could hear it, and be reasoned with, and be persuaded.

  3. In Acts 18 I am reading….

    18:5 When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6 But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

    7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God.
    ———
    A. He says your blood be on your own heads…. which means this was their fault, their choice. Surely Paul would/should understand that they are not believing because “they were not given faith!” Why make it look so much to the contrary? He could have said, “Okay, well, looks like they have not been given faith.” Nah, never says that kind a thing.

    B. Because they are resistant, he will now go to the Gentiles.

    C. Paul goes to the house of a Gentile who is a “worshiper of God.” What does that mean? It does not say he is a believer in Christ; it just uses that “God-fearing Greek” idea. So Paul goes to the house of a Gentile who is open to the things of God. Does not sound like he is “too-dead.”

  4. I have been thinking about a Calvinistic idea I promoted when a young Calvinist.

    Calvinists say the God grants faith to a tiny few while He “passes over” the rest.

    I went to monergism.com to see what they did with “pass over” (not Passover).

    They had 3 articles talking about how God passes over unfortunate ones and gives faith to a few.

    There was one article on the biblical moment when God DID “pass over” His people. When the angel of death came by he passed over those who had, in faith, applied the blood on the door. Phew! Good! In the Bible, being passed over is a good thing! Christ died during Passover, reminding us all that applying His blood means you will be “passed over.”

    I wonder why Calvinists felt the need to take this great idea of “pass over” and make it that God passes over and denies people faith?

    1. FOH asks, “I wonder why Calvinists felt the need to take this great idea of “pass over” and make it that God passes over and denies people faith?”

      Calvinists should have used Romans 9, “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

  5. Here is a bit more reflection on the idea of Calvinists saying God “passes over” denying life to people.

    Sometimes Calvinist will take a verse in Romans 9 out of context to explain this. In addition to the myriad commentators that disagree with the Calvinist rendering of this verse, there is also another good reason that this out-of-context, go-to idea for Calvinists does not work.

    In the Bible where it speaks of hardening heart it is in the context of the person who is already existing. If that person is already automatically “too dead” to be able to respond why does the heart need to be heartened?

    It’s like when the Bible says that “Satan blinds the minds” of people less they would understand. Why does he need to blind them if they’re already “too-dead”?

    In places like Mark 8 “hardening” is not even about salvation and certainly does not appear to be brought about by Christ:

    8:17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?

    Nah. A verse in Romans 9, about hardening, taken out of context, has nothing to do with the passing-over-most-of-humanity idea that Calvinists propose.

    When the angel of death passed-over, he didn’t harden hearts, he saved them!

    1. FOH writes, ‘In the Bible where it speaks of hardening heart it is in the context of the person who is already existing. If that person is already automatically “too dead” to be able to respond why does the heart need to be heartened (hardened)?”

      That God hardens a person is not to make someone something they are not but to expose that which they are. In Romans 1, we read of the lost who, “even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God.” And then, “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, – i.e., God hardened them. Rather than continuing to restrain the lost and limit the evil in which they engage, God removes His restraints thereby hardening them so that they can pursue even more evil and further revealing their character.

      Then, “It’s like when the Bible says that “Satan blinds the minds” of people less they would understand. Why does he need to blind them if they’re already “too-dead”?”

      The reference is to 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 – “…if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving,…” The gospel is veiled from those who are perishing – the lost – the unbelieving. it is the lost, unbelieving whom Satan blinds – this only at the decree of God even as Satan could not touch Job except by God’s decree. How hopeless is the situation of the reprobate. Paul describes the gospel as “…the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” How terrible is the situation of the unbelieving whom God gives over to Satan to blind to the gospel. Their destiny is sealed – there is no hope of salvation for them. So, we see that salvation “…does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”

      Then, “In places like Mark 8 “hardening” is not even about salvation…”

      That is why Paul instructs the believer, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” The believer is not set free from his old nature but is set free to put off that old nature. The believer can still be hardened by that old nature. So, Paul instructs, “…that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

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