I saw this question on Facebook yesterday. I figured I would answer it here. The short answer: regeneration.
The slightly longer answer is that regeneration precedes faith because the Bible continuously refers to those outside of Christ as being dead. The moment Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden, he died. Not physically, obviously; but spiritually. All his children inherited Adam’s sinful nature and, as a result, were paradoxically born dead. Physically alive, just like Adam, but spiritually dead.
Why does that matter? Because dead people do not express anything. They cannot so much as express breath, let alone thoughts, feelings or – significantly – saving faith. It is for that reason the Holy Spirit – incidentally, called the ‘breath of God’ – must make somebody alive before they are able to express anything at all. The only people who are able to express anything – including saving faith – are those who are alive. If we are dead outside of Christ, unable to express anything, we must be made alive by God before we express any saving faith.
Romans 3:10-11 makes matters very clear. Nobody is righteous by nature and, tellingly, no one seeks after God. Indeed, Paul goes on in that very chapter to explain that we ‘are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ In contrast to nobody seeking after God, the righteous are saved by the free grace of Jesus. Indeed, the emphasis on faith later on in the chapter is set against any ‘works of law’ we might do. But if faith comes from ourselves, then we are subtly turning it into the very work of law that Paul is at pains to point out cannot justify anybody.
Even so, it is a false view of faith in Christ. In Romans 8, Paul says the following:
29 For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.
If the Lord has both predestined and then called us – only justifying us after those things – and earlier in Romans 4 Paul makes apparent that we are justified by faith, our regeneration must precede faith. Why? Because we will only respond to the call of God once we have been born again from above, by the Spirit. Otherwise, we are in danger of suggesting that we can ignore both God’s election and calling, making him utterly powerless to save those whom he specifically intends to save.
Ephesians 1:4-6 makes the same point:
he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him.5 He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One.
God chose us and predestined us to be adopted. Our adoption as sons comes later. But if he chose and predestined us, it cannot be possible for us to buck God’s plans. We cannot undo what he intends to do. And the means by which he ensures it is by changing our hearts by his Holy Spirit – the work we call regeneration – so that we cannot do other than put our faith in Christ.
Without regeneration, nobody seeks after God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. But God, by his Spirit, makes us alive in Christ. As Titus 3:5 puts it: ‘He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit’. God in his grace changes our hearts so that we might put our faith in him and be saved.