Regeneration (Published 1992)

This subject is dealt with nationally and individually in the New Testament. The author is here looking at it individually, i.e. in the sense of the New Birth.

1 Introduction

One writer - Philip Jacob Spener - said four hundred years ago that, ‘if one doctrine of our Christian faith is essential, then it is certainly that of regeneration’. Regeneration was one of the doctrines brought better to light during the Reformation when it was recognized that ‘God in the regeneration of man utterly abolishes the substance and essence of the old Adam… and creates from nothing in that conversion and regeneration a new essence of the soul’, Formula of Concord of 1577. Anyone carefully studying the New Testament statements about this doctrine cannot but heartily concur.

The doctrine is spoken of in two ways, either using one Greek word which we translate as ‘regeneration’, Matt. 19. 28; Tit. 3. 5, or the combination of two words as in our English compound verb ‘to be born again’. Some have sought to make a distinction between the two, as W.E. Vine, ‘the new birth stresses the communication of spiritual life in contrast to antecedent spiritual death; regeneration stresses the inception of a new state of things in contrast with the old; hence the connection of the use of the word with the application to Israel, in Matthew 19. 28’.

The word ‘again’ in the phrase ‘born again’ can equally be translated ‘from above’, and while it is true that new birth originates in God, the emphasis would seem to be rather on the newness or second birth aspect. Because we are ‘born in sin’, whatever advantages our first birth might seem to give us carry no weight with God. Equally any disadvantages associated with our first birth do not stand in the way of blessing.

In quite a number of passages of the New Testament, the idea of the new birth is spoken of as God begetting us. W.E. Vine explains that ‘beget is chiefly used of men begetting children’. For instance Peter shares the truth with his readers that ‘the Father… hath begotten us again unto a lively (living) hope’, 1 Pet. 1. 3. It is the Father who caused us to be born again, thus in this sense we are born ‘from above’.

2 The Lord Jesus’ Teaching

The Lord Jesus, anticipating Nicodemus’s interest in being sure of the kingdom told him, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’, John 3. 3, and, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’, v. 5; then, ‘Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again’, v. 7. In verse 8 He speaks about those ‘born of the Spirit’ which He had contrasted in verse 6 with being ‘born of the flesh’. It is obvious then that the Lord Jesus was using these phrases synonymously, and the different ways of expressing the same truth merely highlighted various aspects of that truth. Being born again shows the necessity of new birth; born of the Spirit emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the new birth; but what does ‘born of water’ mean? Some suggest this is baptism and hence the much later doctrine of baptismal regeneration. That this is incorrect is easy to see: the role of the word of God and the Holy Spirit in the new birth is seen elsewhere to such an extent that it seems clear that in this passage water is a symbol of the regenerating word of God.

As well as the necessity and possibility of personal regeneration, the Lord Jesus also taught His disciples the certainty of a regeneration of the creation, ‘when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory’, Matt. 19. 28, cf. Acts 3. 21 RV, ‘the restoration of all things’. The groaning creation will then share the blessings of the believer, Rom 8. 21. Some have pictured this regeneration as a renovation, or picturesquely, as the return of spring after winter: indeed after the winter of the great tribulation.

3 The Apostle’s Teaching

There was a time when Paul - as the erstwhile Saul - would have boasted about the various advantages passed onto him at his natural birth: he was born free, Acts 22. 28; he was born a Hebrew of the Hebrews, Phil. 3. 5. However, he afterwards gladly acknowledged the need for new birth. As he said to the Galatians about Isaac ‘he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now’, Gal. 4. 29. so then, brethren, we are … children of the free (woman)’, v. 31. To Titus he spoke of God our Saviour who ‘saved us, by the washing (laver) of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost’, 3. 5; and to the Ephesians about Christ, having cleansed us by ‘the washing (laver) of water by the word’, Eph 5. 26. In both texts we see the picture of a laver used for cleansing; making fit for God’s presence and service, so there is a correspondence between regeneration and the word pictured as water. In the former text we see the connection with the Holy Spirit in this renewing work; so ‘born of water and the Spirit’.

As to the human channel used to bring about new birth, Paul remembers his work at Corinth as resulting in being able to say: ‘I have begotten you through the gospel’, 1 Cor. 4. 15. Then he could speak of Onesimus as the one ‘whom I have begotten in my bonds’, Philem. 10. The word of God in the gospel had brought it about, but it had been communicated through a human channel.

Peter speaks about regeneration a number of times. In the first chapter of his first epistle he blesses God who ‘according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again’. Later in that same chapter he says, ‘seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit… being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God’, 1 Pet. 1. 22, 23. ‘The contrast drawn here is between human seed which produces mortal human life and divine seed which produces eternal life’, Best. Again we see the coincidence of the Holy Spirit, the word of God and regeneration. Building on this metaphor Peter goes on to appeal to his readers, ‘as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk’, 2. 2. The word of God that had given them life was now meant to sustain that life, ‘that ye may grow thereby’. Although spiritual life is vouchsafed to the children of God, we are responsible to see that by feeding on the unadulterated word of God we may experience growth. What a sad spectacle are those believers who are spiritually stunted and dwarfed due to neglect of the word.

John has other things to say about the new birth that we have not yet considered. He stresses the essential divine origin of it in John 1. 13, ‘Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’. No human agency caused the new birth, even though humans maybe used to bring it about - as spiritual midwives!

In his first epistle, John brings out the connection between the new birth from God and profession in difficult circumstances and practical holiness. Hence, ‘ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him’, 1 John 2. 29 and, ‘Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God’, 3. 9. ‘The child exhibits the parents’ characteristic because he shares the parents nature’, Stott. The new man within every believer has the life-giving principle persisting - ‘his seed remaineth’ - and hence, while the old man, the flesh, remains and sins, the new man cannot sin. Not only is there no negative, but also a wonderful positive effect: ‘every one that loveth is born of God’, 4. 7. Of this verse Rienecker says: ‘the perfect tense emphasizes the continuing results of the new birth’.

Further statements about confession and works follow: ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and everyone that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him’, 5. 1. ‘For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory … even our faith’, 5. 4 and ‘whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not’, 5. 18.

Last but not least we mention James, who again reminds us of the connection between regeneration and the word of God; he too tells us that there is a very practical purpose to being born of God. ‘Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures’, Jas. 1. 18. God wants to see fruit!

4 Conclusion

While there is but one ‘only begotten Son’, John. 1. 14, 18; 3. 16, 18; Acts 13. 33; Heb. 1. 5; 5. 5; 1 John 4. 9, there are many sons; all ‘born again, of water and the Spirit’; born a second time so that they will never ‘be hurt of the second death’, Rev 2. 11.

‘Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth’.


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