You are on page 1of 4

Regeneration

The histor��00"ian Plutarch (ca. AD 45–125) tells about a man who tried to make a
dead body stand upright. When he finally had the corpse propped up, the man observed,
“Deest aliquid intus” (There’s something lacking inside.)141 The Bible declares that in a real
sense every unsaved person, no matter how propped up by his attempts at ethical
behavior, is in a similar state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1–3). The only remedy for this
condition is for a person to be spiritually born again—regeneration. The purpose of the
gospel is not merely to make bad men good or even make good men better but to bring
dead men back to life.142

Regeneration is the act of God whereby the Holy Spirit imparts eternal life to the believer.
When the Bible speaks of the gift of eternal life, it refers to much more than an existence of
infinite duration because even the condemned exist forever. Rather, eternal life signifies
the quality of our new life in Christ. The Scriptures present five new qualities that
regeneration conveys to the believer.143 A person regenerated receives new life (John 3:5–
7; 1 John 5:11–12), partakes of a new nature (2 Pet. 1:4), receives the spiritual
circumcision of a new heart (Jer. 24:7; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26, cf. Col. 2:11), becomes a new
creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:24), and enjoys a new purity (1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:5).

Jesus spoke of the necessity of regeneration when he told Nicodemus, “You must be born
again” (John 3:7). Sin kills every person who commits it because sin severs the offender
from God, who is life. Since all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), the imperative of the new birth is
directed to all. A sinner can continue to exist separated from God, but he cannot live, at
least not in any meaningful understanding of the word, and certainly not in the way for
which he was created. Regeneration provides the believer with the necessary nature of
holiness in order for fellowship with God to be restored.

Like all other components of salvation, regeneration is to be understood as an aspect of
uniting with Christ. Strong stated, “As we derive our old nature from the first man Adam, by
birth, so we derive a new nature from the second man Christ, by the new birth. Union with
Christ is the true ‘transfusion of blood.’”144 When Christ’s Spirit makes a person his
habitation, he communicates new life to that person. The Holy Spirit, who is the bond of
our union with him, ensures that the righteousness of Christ continues its transforming
work in us. The Bible emphasizes that each person of the Trinity takes an active part in our
new birth. Regeneration is an activity of the Holy Spirit (John 3:6–8), originates in the will
of the Father (John 1:13; James 1:18), and is based on the death, burial, and resurrection
of Christ (1 Pet. 1:3).

One might think that regeneration is a minor doctrine because of the few times the word is
found in the Bible. The word for regeneration, palingenesia, occurs only twice in the New
Testament, and one of those times refers to something other than the new birth (Matt.
19:28).145&#0;�t>< The one instance where palingenesia denotes personal salvation is when
Paul stated, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His
mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit”
(Titus 3:5, emphasis added). However, when we also consider terms synonymous to
regeneration such as “born again” (John 3:3–8), “born of God” (John 1:12–13; 1 John 2:29;
5:1,4), “begotten” (1 Pet. 1:3), and “made alive” (Eph. 2:5), it becomes apparent that the
doctrine is a major theme of the Scriptures.

The Holy Spirit acts as the agent of regeneration, and the Word of God is the instrument
he uses. John’s Gospel repeatedly teaches that the new birth is from above (John 3:3–8)
(i.e., it is of divine origin rather than human achievement [John 1:12–13]), and that it is the
Holy Spirit who imparts life to a soul which is dead in trespasses and sins (John 6:63; cf. 2
Cor. 3:6). However, the Holy Spirit uses means, and the instruments he employs to
achieve regeneration are the gospel (James 1:18,21; 1 Pet. 1:23) and the messengers
who share it (1 Cor. 4:15). If the gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit regenerates,
then where the gospel is not available, the saving, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is
also absent. This disturbing truth gives urgency to the missionary mandate of the Great
Commission.

A number of churches and denominations teach that water baptism is the instrument by
which the Holy Spirit regenerates.146 Without a doubt, the Bible associates the new birth
and baptism (Rom. 6:3–5). However, the Scriptures present baptism as the sign or
testimony that points to the new birth, not as the means that accomplishes regeneration.
As such, baptism presupposes that regeneration has already occurred (e.g., Acts 10:47–
48).147

Are those who believe in turn born again, or does a person believe because he has been
regenerated? Which happens first? And if they occur simultaneously, which one is the
logical cause of the other? Evangelicals agree that a saved person is both converted and
regenerated, but there is wide disagreement as to which occurs first, either chronologically
or logically. There are good arguments for either position, but the biblical texts seem to
come down on the side of conversion resulting in regeneration.

Regeneration is instantaneous; it is not a process drawn out over a period of time. An
expectant mother may experience a protracted labor, but there will finally come a point
when the child is delivered. Similarly, those who come to Christ often first go through the
great spiritual travail of the Holy Spirit’s conviction (John 16:8). The process of wrestling
with God is not the new birth, but rather regeneration is the outcome of the effectual calling
of God. Erickson makes the point that the Bible never presents regeneration as a
progression.148 Scripture describes believers as having been born of God but not in a state
of being reborn (e.g., John 1:12–13; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:1; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3; 1 John
2:29; 5:1,4).

Certain Reformed and Presbyterian churches teach that regeneration precedes conversion
chronologically, and a number of covenant theologians connect regeneration with infant
baptism. W. G. T. Shedd, for example, is careful not to attribute regenerat&#0;�buting
power to the rite of baptism, but he does consider baptism to be a sign that the infant has
been regenerated. He states, “The baptism of the infant of a believer supposes the actual
or prospective operation of the regenerating Spirit, in order to the efficacy of the rite. . . .
The actual conferring of the Holy Spirit may be prior to baptism, or in the act itself, or
subsequent to it.”149

Shedd equates New Testament baptism with the Old Testament rite of circumcision, and
he sees both as signs that one has been born into the covenant, and he contends that just
as the male children of a Hebrew family were circumcised as infants, so today the children
of believers also should be baptized. He concludes, “The infant of the believer receives the
Holy Spirit as a regenerating Spirit, by virtue of the covenant between God and his
people.”150

However, as we have seen, the Scriptures point to the Word of God, not baptism, as the
means by which the Holy Spirit imparts the new birth. In addition, Shedd’s association of
baptism with circumcision is not supported by the New Testament. Rather, the teaching of
Scripture is that regeneration is concurrent, or coincident, with conversion. This means
that conversion and regeneration, as events, occur at the same time. 151 For example, John
stated that those who “receive him” are also those have been “born of God” (John 1:12–
13).

Among those who agree that the two aspects of salvation are simultaneous, there is
debate as to which is logically prior. Many Reformed and Covenant theologians reject
Shedd’s argument for chronological priority but still contend for the logical priority of
regeneration.152 Conversion is the willing response to the gospel call, but how does one
who is totally depraved and dead in sins turn to God? The inability of a lost person to
respond to the gospel seems to necessitate that something must happen to the person to
make him receptive, and regeneration is seen to be that transforming event. Even those
who do not hold to this position acknowledge its logical appeal.153

However, there are three strong biblical arguments for understanding conversion to
precede the new birth.154 First, the many appeals in the Bible calling sinners to respond to
the gospel imply that conversion results in regeneration. 155 The Scriptures are presented
as the seed the Spirit of God uses to bring about new life (James 1:18,21; 1 Pet. 1:23; 1
John 3:9). That the Word of God is the Spirit’s instrumental means indicates that faith
leads to regeneration. Second, the Bible presents conversion as the condition to salvation,
not the result of being saved (John 1:12; 3:16,18,24,36,40; Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:22,26;
4:3,5; 5:1).156 The apostles repeatedly promise their hearers that, if they will repent and
believe, then they will be saved (Acts 2:38; 16:30–31). The Apostle John put special
emphasis on the necessity of the new birth, but he presented faith as the condition to
becoming a child of God (John 1:12–1&#0;�(Jo3) and to receiving eternal life (“By
believing you may have life in his name,” John 20:31).157

And third, Geisler makes the point that if regeneration is prior to conversion, then salvation
is no longer by faith. If one is already regenerated before he believes, then faith is not a
condition to salvation but the evidence of having been saved. 158 However, sola fide is the
testimony of Scripture (Rom. 10:9–10).

In order for a person to answer the gospel call, there indeed must be a special work of the
Holy Spirit, but we conclude that this enablement is not regeneration but the inward call of
the Spirit.159 The convicting work of the Holy Spirit and the effectual call that accompanies
the preaching of the gospel enable a sinner to believe. The order that seems to be the
testimony of Scripture is that those who are converted are born again.

The transformed nature of the new birth manifests itself as a changed life. As we will see,
in many ways sanctification is the ongoing process of experiencing the power of
regeneration. Regeneration does not change our physical or psychological makeup, but it
does change our dispositions and affections. As Mullins stated, “Man’s personality remains
when he is regenerated, but it is now a transformed personality. Paul the apostle was the
same as Saul the persecutor. Yet the change in him was so great that he describes
himself as an entirely new creature.”160 The Bible gives at least four characteristics that
distinguish a regenerated person.

First, the new birth imparts a new comprehension of spiritual truth. Paul stated, “But the
natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to
him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). The
“natural man,” i.e., an unbeliever, can comprehend the facts of the gospel and perhaps
even affirm their truthfulness, but what he cannot do is appreciate their value. The
bondage of sin has the effect of blinding the unsaved person to matters of eternal worth,
and, therefore, they are foolishness to him (2 Cor. 4:4). The unregenerate person can be
aware of what the Bible teaches, but he is unable to “see” the truth. In contrast, one who is
spiritually alive has the ability to discern God’s revealed will (1 Cor. 2:15) and so
possesses a spiritual wisdom no amount of natural knowledge can provide.

Second, regeneration provides a new affection for God and the things of God. The reason
we have a new comprehension for the truth is that we have a new love for it. When we are
born again, we are given a new disposition: now we love God and loathe the sin and self-
righteousness we used to hold so near and dear (Eph. 2:1–5). The Bible specifically states
that those who are born of God will love God (1 John 4:19; 5:2), the Word of God (1 Pet.
2:2), and the people of God (1 John 5:1). A regenerate person also exhibits a distinct
attitude toward the world and its inhabitants: he does not love the world and its systematic
opposition to God (1 John 2:14–16), but at the same time he loves his enemies (Matt.
5:44–45) and desires the salvation of the lost (2 Cor. 5:14).

The third effect of regeneration is a new power over temptation and sin. An unsaved
person is controlled by his sinful nature (Eph. 2:1–3) so that he inevitably produces the
fruit of sin (Matt. 7:16–20), and therefore he cannot live in a way that pleases God (Rom.
8:8).

For the regenerate, sin is not eradicated, but it is dethroned (1 John 3:9; 5:4,18). 161 As
Strong states, “The sinful nature is not gone, but its power is broken; sin no longer
dominates the life. It has been thrust from the centre to the circumference.” 162 When we
were unsaved we were dead to righteousness but alive to sin, which was a type of “living
death.” Now that we are regenerate the exact opposite is true: we are alive to God but
dead to sin (Rom. 6:1–11). We experience this new reality when we mortify, i.e., “put to
death” (Rom. 8:13), our old desires and embrace our new, godly desires (Rom. 6:11). Paul
calls this process of transformation the “putting off of the old man” and the “putting on of
the new man” (Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9–10). Sanctification is the distinct outcome of
regeneration.

Fourth, the new birth instigates a new relationship with God. The Scriptures declare that
the redeemed are “born of God” and are the “children of God” (1 John 3:1–2). This new
relationship goes beyond our being pardoned or being made the servants of God, for it
speaks of our inheritance as joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16–17). The new birth means
that Christ has more than restored what we lost in Adam, for he freely gives to us all that is
his (1 Cor. 3:21–23