Every Christian has some kind of story about how they came to the faith. Some were drug lords, prostitutes, drunkards, homosexuals, swindlers, gamblers, sex addicts, abusers, and/or a part of another religion. Those people had a very emotion filled, dramatic type of experience. Saul of Tarsus was knocked off of his donkey, visited by the resurrected Lord, and made blind during his experience. That was quite dramatic. Others may have a quiet, near emotionless experience. C.S. Lewis was the latter. “I was driven into Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. And yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events.” No matter the experience, each and every Christian has been regenerated. Other words could be “born again” or “spiritual birth” or “new life.” Something divine takes place in a human at the beginning of his Christian journey. The questions to be explored are, “What is it?” “How does it happen?” and “What does it do?”
What is Regeneration?
Being a “born-again” Christian became a household phrase after several well known people started using it. Jimmy Carter, during his 1976 presidential campaign, Jimmy Carter identified himself as such. Around the same time, Larry Flint, the publisher of Hustler magazine, along with Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther leader, both announced they had become “born-again” Christians. Another event that popularized this phrase was Chuck Colson’s book Born Again. He had previously been engaged in the Watergate Scandal with President Nixon and had been saved while in prison. This book sold millions of copies and has even had a movie made about it. Where as the phrase became popular, many people who heard it, did not understand it. It is a phrase that is only used in Christian circles. This section will seek to define what it meant by “born-again” and the technical term “regeneration.”
The English word “regeneration” is translated from the Greek word palingenesia. This word is a compound word of palin (which means “again”) and genesia (which means “birth” or “beginning”). It is used only twice in the entire Bible. The first occurrence is from Jesus. The context is the story of the rich, young ruler. He had just sought eternal life from Jesus, but Jesus told him to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. The young man walked away and this worried the disciples. They began questioning Jesus about their own salvation. Jesus replies in Matthew 19:28 (NASB), “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration (palingenesia) when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” The ESV translates it as “the new world.” The HCSB translates it as “the Messianic Age.” The NIV translates it as “the renewal of all things.” No matter how it is translated, clearly, Jesus is talking about the new heavens and new earth. He is not talking specifically of the regeneration of people but generally of nature.
The other reference to palingenesia is by Paul. In Titus 3:4-7, Paul gives one of the most beautiful descriptions of the gospel in all of Scripture: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This passage, unlike Jesus’, talks about the regeneration of people. Even though this is the only passage in the Bible that uses the term palingenesia applied to people, it is packed with truth.
The primary truth that flows from this passage is that God is the one who regenerates. Different camps of theology debate on when that happens, a topic which will be explored later. However, all camps believe that it is God who performs it. Millard Erickson has stated in his Christian Theology that regeneration “is completely God’s doing. It is God’s transformation of individual believers, his giving a new spiritual vitality and direction to their lives when they accept Christ.” R. C. Sproul believes that “Spiritual rebirth is a monergistic work, not a synergistic work. Rebirth is accomplished by God alone.” The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus.” Wayne Grudem says “…in the work of regeneration we play no active role at all. It is instead totally a work of God.” Finding a Christian who believes they “rebirthed” themselves would prove to be quite difficult. In the Titus 3 passage, “God our Savior… saved us… by the washing of regeneration.” Paul did not just state the positive but also the negative just in case someone would want to argue with him: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness” (emphasis mine).
While God the Father is the one who is praised for achieving salvation, the Holy Spirit is the applier of this salvation. Paul describes this regeneration as “of the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be “born again,” He uses the description “born of the Spirit.” Jesus also tells him, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” To be regenerated, or born again, means that the Spirit must do His work inside of a person. The Spirit never works solely by Himself. His instruments for bringing about regeneration are “the gospel (James 1:18,21; 1 Pet. 1:23) and the messengers who share it (1 Cor. 4:15). This means that if there is no proclamation of the gospel, there is no possible regeneration.
The study of regeneration must move beyond the two occurrences of the exact word to the mentions of the concept. The clearest teaching in the Old Testament of the new birth is found in Ezekiel 36:26-27, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” God is making a promise of the new covenant that He will make with His people. This is a promise to not just rule over them, but that He will rule within them. God promises to bring their dead hearts to life. He promises that this regenerated heart will be under God’s authority, and their desires will be for Him and His will. Based upon this passage in Ezekiel and Titus 3:5, regeneration occurs when the Holy Spirit indwells the believer. Throughout Scripture, there is no language of Christians as “being born again.” All the Greek verbs that are used in passages which deal with the concept of being born again are either in the aorist tense or perfect tense. There is no mention of the “state” of being reborn in the Bible. Since this is the case, it is also a unique event in that it only happens to a person once.
Jesus in John 3 gives Nicodemus the most lengthy discussion on the new birth. The section most closely dealing with rebirth is John 3:3-8:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The windblows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
One of the key questions that may arise after a careful reading of this passage is “What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?” One commentator has laid out four different options. First, it could mean baptisms in water by John the Baptist and baptism in the Spirit by Jesus. The early references to water in this Gospel refer to John baptizing people. Second, it could mean Christian water baptism and spiritual regeneration. The early church would have already been practicing water baptism and would have not recognized water as referring to John’s baptism. Third, it could mean natural birth and spiritual regeneration. Jesus contrasts being born of flesh and of Spirit later in the passage. Fourthly, it could be depicting spiritual regeneration with a double metaphor. Kruse notes, “The expression ‘water and Spirit’ is a hendiadys, a figure of speech using two different word to denote one thing, something suggested by the fact that both ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are anarthrous (without the article) ad governed by one preposition (lit. ‘of water and spirit’, ex hydrates kai pneumatos). This fourth view is also supported by the usage of water as a metaphor for Spirit in John 4:10, 13-15, and 7:38. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, Spirit and water are accomplishing the same goal, cleansing God’s people.
The doctrine of regeneration is an important and critical doctrine of the Christian faith. Although the Bible is clear that believers are born again, exactly what takes place is a mystery. Scholars agree that little is known about what actually happens to a believer during regeneration. Jesus alludes to this mystery by using the analogy of wind. He was using a word play of sorts because the word for “spirit” and “wind” is the same word: pneuma. The wind is a mysterious thing; almost every child will ask at some point, “Why can I not see the wind?” Wind invokes terror when it is violent, comfort when it is gentle. Meteorologists can try to predict the wind but only God knows where it is going.
How does regeneration happen?
A question that has confused humanity for years is “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” Christians can easily answer this since God made animals, not embryos, in the beginning. However, a question that has stumped Christians for millennia has been “What comes first: conversion or regeneration?” This may seem to be a tedious debate, yet it is key to understanding God’s plan of salvation. One clarification must be made: the question must not be addressed by thinking of these things on a timeline. Both sides of this debate believe that conversion and regeneration happen at the same time. The question really is “Which causes which?” Does faith in God cause Him to make us born again? Or does God’s regeneration in the believer cause him repent and believe? For the sake of discussion, these positions will be called the non-Calvinist position and the Calvinist position, respectfully.
The non-Calvinist says faith is the cause of regeneration. He would cite passages such as Acts 16:31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul is answering the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer begins with believe, then salvation comes afterward. Belief seems to be the cause of being saved. This is also seen in Acts 2:38. Peter tells the crowd at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Notice the order of Peter’s invitation, “Repent… and you will receive…” He does not tell them to wait until they are regenerated to believe. Also a passage made famous by the Romans Road technique of evangelism is Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Here, confession and belief results in salvation according to Paul. Human action precedes divine action according to these passages.
The Calvinist says regeneration is the cause of faith. Their reasoning is the belief in total depravity. The reason why humans need to be “born again” is because they are completely, spiritually dead. Spiritual life is needed because they are spiritually dead. Ephesians 2 says that all of mankind is “dead in trespasses and sins” without Christ. Jesus has said “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Also, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” How could an unregenerated person come to God when they do not “accept the things of the Spirit of God?” The Ezekiel 36 passage is key in understanding this position as well. The heart that God is taking out is a “heart of stone.” This gives an image of deadness, no life whatsoever. Calvinists would point out that God is the subject of the actions in Ezekiel 36. Another passage they would point out to show God’s initiative is 1 Peter 1:3: “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again…” If a believer’s faith had caused him to be born again, then why does it say “God” is the causation of being born again?
So what is it? Is faith the causation of regeneration or vice versa? The Bible is not as clear as some would make it. Wayne Grudem, taking the Calvinist position, says, “The idea that regeneration comes before saving faith is not always understood by evangelicals today. Sometimes people will even say something like, ‘If you believe in Christ as your Savior, then (after you believe) you will be born again.’ But Scripture itself never says anything like that” (emphasis mine). Speaking for the non-Calvinist side, David Allen argues, “There is no Scripture anywhere that directly says regeneration precedes faith.” Anyone who endeavors to study this issue must respect human limitations in understanding such a mysterious work.
With these cautions understood, regeneration causing faith seems to be the most plausible conclusion. The majority of the passages the non-Calvinist wield can easily dismissed as not being descriptions of salvation. Passages such as Acts 2:38, Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9 are all commands. Those passages are intended to focus on the human aspect of salvation. The command cannot be “be born again.” Humans are totally unable to do that. God alone regenerates and gives spiritual, new life. Peter could not tell the Jews at Pentecost, “Wait until you feel like you have been born again, then confess Jesus as Savior.” By telling them to repent and believe, he and everyone would know who had been born again by seeing who repented and believed.
John 1:12-13 states, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” This passage is used by both sides to affirm their position. “Were born” is describing those who received and believed. The description of the type of birth is most important. They were not born of blood, will of the flesh, or the will of man. That rules out faith causing regeneration. If faith caused the new birth, then believers would be born of the will of man.
First John 5:1 has been a verse Calvinists have historically seen as pointing to God’s work precedes man’s. John boldly proclaims, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God…” Another John, the late John Stott, offers valuable insight into this verse, John Stott notes, “The combination of present tense (believes) and perfect tense [has been born] is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth. Our present, continuing activity of believing is the result, and therefore, the evidence, of our past experience of new birth by which we became and remain God’s children.” The perfect tense denotes a completed action in the past that has continuing effects. Based on this understanding, the believer must have been born again in order to be believing.
What does regeneration do?
Regeneration is an inward working of God’s grace, but it does not stay inside. The born again follower of Christ can be identified by his actions. There are new desires, thoughts, words, and actions coming from him. The entire book of 1 John was written to those “who believe in the name of the Son of God that [they] may know that [they] have eternal life.” Many effects and evidences of a new birth can be found in this book. The first two effects are two sides of a coin. A positive effect of the rebirth is a will of Christlike love. The believer wants to fulfill Jesus’ words in Luke 10:27, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” First John 4:7 states it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” So the one that is born of God is the only one who can truly love, for this love is given by God. Those who are unregenerate cannot love God and people with a true love.
A negative effect of regeneration is a will to fight. 1 John 3:9 says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” Though the regenerate still occasionally sins, sin has lost its dominion over him. Children of God, though free from sin’s reign, must kill sin and die to self daily. Romans 7:15-25 shows the struggle between the new man (the nature God created during regeneration) and the old man (human sin nature that no longer controls the believer). Killing sin is a daily task. When God causes one to be born again, he is still responsible to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling” but always remembering “it is God who works in [him], both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
A third effect of the new birth is a new type of relationship with God. Ephesians 2:3 notes that before the believer is made new, he is “by nature [a child] of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” After regeneration, a new relationship is formed as described in 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” God transfers the Christian from Satan’s family to His own. Kenneth Keathly rightly observes, “This new relationship goes beyond our being pardoned or being made servants of god, for it speaks of our inheritance as joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17).” This is one of the most glorious truths in all the Bible. When God causes someone to be born again, he is not just a believer, a follower, or a servant, but a son.
Being a “born-again” Christian may have some baggage attached to it. Statistics say that “born-again” Christians are just as likely to divorce as non-Christians and just as likely to commit other sexual sins. After looking at what the Bible says, no one could say that the Christians in these statistics can truly be born again. When God sends his Spirit into a life, everything changes. Regeneration is a great mystery, even to the ones it is applied. It is an occurrence that no man can take credit for in any way, for it is God who causes it and does it. No matter what position a Christian holds to, he must still be a good steward of this precious gift of spiritual life. Taking such a gift for granted is of the utmost of crimes. The regenerate should always live in the balance of working his salvation out and knowing that God is the one working in him.
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