Soteriology Series: Regeneration (Being Born Again)
April 2, 2020
Regeneration (Being Born Again)
There is considerable debate over the placement of regeneration in the order of salvation. Scripture describes unbelievers as dead in their sin and rebelling against God and his Word (Eph 2:1-6, Rom 8:7, 1 Cor 2:14). But when a person is regenerated, God raises the spiritually dead to life through the Spirit (John 3:5-8) and his or her hearing of the gospel (1 Pet 1:23, Jam 1:18). The Greek word translated “regeneration” or “new birth” is only used once in Scripture to refer to a believer’s salvation. Titus 3:5 says, “he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Though only mentioned once, the concept is that of being “born again,” “reborn,” or “born of God,” which is mentioned many times (cf. 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4). In John 3:3 (ESV), Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” First John 2:29 (NIV) says, “If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him.”
The concept of regeneration is rooted in God’s Old Testament promise of a New Covenant with his people. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, God said:
I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations.
Because Israel had failed to obey God’s first covenant, he promised to make a New Covenant with them. In it, he committed to cleanse them, take away their heart of stone, give them a new heart, and put his Spirit in them. Through this work, God would enable them to obey his laws.
Likewise, believers have experienced this in the New Covenant (cf. Heb 9:15). When they are born again, he gives them a new nature and his Spirit. Where before, as unbelievers, they were in rebellion against God and incapable of understanding and obeying his Word, after regeneration, God, his Word, and obeying him are their daily bread (cf. Matt 4:4, John 4:34, Rom 8:15). Because of the new birth, they have holy affections—desires to pray, read Scripture, worship God, love him and others. These are proofs of true salvation. First John 3:10 says,
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.
Views on Regeneration
There are two primary views on the placement of regeneration in the order of salvation.
1. Some believe regeneration happens before salvation, enabling a believer to have faith in God.
This view is most commonly held by believers in Reformed traditions such as Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist. They believe regeneration precedes faith for several reasons. (1) They focus on human inability. As mentioned, humans by nature cannot obey God or have faith in him. Romans 8:7-8 says, “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Also, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Logically, this means God must regenerate unbelievers by his Spirit for them to respond to the gospel in faith. (2) They focus on metaphors that appear to correspond with regeneration. When Scripture refers to “being born again” (John 3:3), the metaphor demonstrates how a person has nothing to do with regeneration. Who had anything to do with their human birth? Neither do believers have anything to do with their spiritual birth. God must choose to give us life. James 1:18 says, “By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” Also, Christ uses the metaphor of the wind in referring to being born again in John 3:8. He says, “The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” No human controls the wind. The metaphor seems to point to how a person contributes nothing to his or her regeneration. It is totally monergistic—a work God does by himself. God imparts a new nature and faith in the elect so they will respond to the gospel (cf. Eph 2:8-9, Phil 1:29). In addition, there is the metaphor of unbelievers being blinded by Satan until God removes their blindness by declaring, “Let light shine out of darkness,” enabling them to understand and accept the gospel (2 Cor 4:3-6). Furthermore, there is the metaphor of the spiritual resurrection. Scripture says that by nature we are dead in our sins (Eph 2:1). Again, emphasizing human inability. Dead people can’t regenerate themselves or do anything spiritually good; God has to resurrect them and give them new life. Ephesians 2:4-6 says,
But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!—and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus
(3) Finally, some verses seem to clearly indicate that regeneration precedes faith. For example, Titus 3:5 says, “he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Titus says we are saved “through the washing of the new birth,” which seems to indicate that the new birth precedes faith. Likewise, 1 John 5:1 (NIV) says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” Since “believes” is present tense and “born of God” is in the perfect tense (meaning it happened in the past with present effects), it seems to indicate order. John Stott explains, “The combination of the present tense and perfect tense is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth.”
For those who take this view, regeneration is a necessary work of God so people can be saved. Though conversion and regeneration, in real-time, appear to happen simultaneously, the logical order is that regeneration must happen first. It’s like flipping the light switch on in a house. When one flips the switch, the lights come on simultaneously; however, the flipped switch is the cause of the lights coming on. In the same way, it is argued that regeneration is the cause of salvation, as God equips a person to believe the gospel.
2. With all that said, most believe regeneration happens after faith.
This does not mean that humans can believe the gospel apart from God’s grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Even a believer’s faith is a gift from God (cf. Phil 1:29).
There are several reasons why many believe regeneration happens after faith. (1) When Christ describes the need for Nicodemus to be born again to enter into the kingdom of God in John 3:1-8, though he uses metaphors, like being born again and the wind, which might seem to preclude any human participation, Christ soon after challenges Nicodemus to believe so he might have eternal life. In John 3:16, he said, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” It would seem natural for Nicodemus to equate being born again to enter the kingdom with his believing to have eternal life—that he needed to believe in Christ to be born again. (2) Some verses seem to indicate that being born again happens as a result of faith. For example, John 1:12 says, “But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children.” Being born again seems to correspond with becoming a child of God. When a person believes in Christ, they are born again—adopted into the family of God (Rom 8:15-17). Also, though logically dead people can do nothing to resurrect themselves (which those who believe the first view point out), Paul teaches that the believer’s spiritual resurrection happens because of his faith in God. Colossians 2:12 says, “Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him ‘through your faith’ in the power of God who raised him from the dead.” In John 5:24, Christ seems to say the same thing: “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.” Crossing from death to life refers to one’s spiritual resurrection, which happened as a consequence of believing. (3) Finally, in teaching Nicodemus about the need to be born again, Christ said it happened by God’s Spirit (John 3:5-6), and many verses point to God’s Spirit being given after faith. For example, Acts 2:38 says, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Since a person is born again by God’s Spirit, and the Spirit is given to the believer after faith, most have seen regeneration happening after a person is converted.
Whatever view one takes on the order of regeneration, the results of regeneration are unmistakable. Those who were dead in their sin and rebelling against God (Eph 2:1, Rom 8:7), now love and obey him. (1) The apostle John says the results of regeneration will be demonstrated in various ways, including patterns of righteousness. First John 2:29 (ESV) says, “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (2) Likewise, in the regenerate, there will be a continual decrease in sinning—though not reaching perfection in this life (cf. 1 John 1:8). First John 3:9 (ESV) 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.” (3) There will be fruits of loving other believers—no doubt demonstrated in continually gathering to worship together and serving one another. First John 3:14 says, “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death.” This is why those who profess Christ but demonstrate no positive change in their lives may not be born again. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul said:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
In regeneration, believers are radically changed, and the fruits will be evident (2 Cor 5:17, Matt 7:17-20). They will stumble and fail God, but God will not fail them. He will complete the work he began in them until the day of Christ (Phil 1:6).
Though regenerated, believers still have a sin nature that must be battled. But, because of Christ’s victory over it on the cross (Rom 6:6, 11), God’s imparting of a new nature and the Spirit, believers will be different, with the ability to daily conquer sin and walk in holiness. In Galatians 5:16-17, Paul said:
But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.
In conclusion, regeneration is a work by which God imparts a new nature into the spiritually dead and transforms them by his Spirit into new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Whether it happens before or after saving faith, it is the beginning of how God progressively sanctifies believers—making them more and more Christlike.
What stood out most to you in the reading and why?
What are the two views of regeneration and which view seems more biblical to you and why?
What are fruits of regeneration in the life of someone who is truly born again?
What if a person lacks the fruits of regeneration, what does that say about his or her faith?
What questions or applications did you take from the reading?