I really appreciate this section of John Owen’s discussion of regeneration in his book, The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power. Since the arrival of Pentecostalism in the West around 100 years ago, some people have wrongly taught and thought that regeneration and conversion have to do with elation, ecstasy, frenzy, convulsions, or some sort of trance. This causes a lot of problems in the Christian life. Not only is it a distortion of the Spirit’s work, it also causes Christians who have never been “enraptured” to wonder if they’re really Christians. Even worse, it makes some Christians fake ecstasy so they can say they had a “conversion experience.” John Owen cuts through these unbiblical aspects of what we know today as Pentecostalism (which has roots in the radical Anabaptist movement after the Reformation).
“The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration does not consist in enthusiastical raptures, ecstasies, voices, or any thing of the like kind. Such things may have been pretended to by some weak and deluded persons: but the countenancing of such imaginations, or teaching men to expect them, or esteeming them as conversion to God, while holiness was neglected, is a calumny and false accusation, as our writings and preachings fully testify.”
“Therefore as to this negative principle we observe that the Holy Spirit usually exerts his power in the use of means, and that he works on men agreeably to their natures. He does not come upon them with involuntary raptures, using their mental powers as the evil spirit wrests the bodies of possessed persons. His whole work is rationally to be accounted for, by those who believe the Scriptures and have received the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive.”
“Indeed, the efficiency of the Spirit in quickening our souls (which the ancients always termed his ‘inspiration of grace’) is no otherwise to be comprehended than any other act of creating power, for as we hear the wind, but know not from where it came or where it goes, so is everyone that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). But this is certain, that he works nothing but what is determined and declared in the written word, and that he puts no force on the faculties of our souls, but works in them and by them suitably to their nature.”
In this same section, Owen later exhorts pastors to know what the Bible teaches about the Spirit’s work of regeneration (giving life to a spiritually dead person). He says that if a pastor doesn’t know what the Bible teaches, then all sorts of things will be substituted for the truth, and everyone will be tricked into thinking they’re regenerate when their not, or think they are not regenerate when they are. This is profound. If a pastor thinks regeneration is about visions, emotions, ecstasy, tremblings, and tongues, he will preach towards those things and the people will attempt to get those things. That is a seed-bed of legalism, pride, and/or despair. Legalism because those things are said to be necessary; pride because those who have them think they are higher on the Christian ladder; despair because those who don’t have them will be unsure of their salvation.
Reformed Christians are not putting the Holy Spirit in a box when we agree with Owen above. We are avoiding legalism, pride, and despair by focusing on the “ordinary means” the Bible emphasizes when it comes to the Spirit’s work of regeneration: preaching, repentance, faith, and the good works (the fruit of the Spirit) that follow.
The Owen quote above is found on page 133 of The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power.