The word ‘regeneration’ occurs twice in the Bible, in Matthew chapter 19 verse 28, and Titus chapter 3 verse 5. It is somewhat surprising that it does not occur in John chapter 3, where the Lord Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about the need to be born again, or in John’s Epistle, in which He speaks of being born of God. Also, neither Peter nor James use this word, even though both speak of the new birth.
The common usage of the word is, perhaps, not as accurate as it might be. It means ‘new birth’, but, contextually, it is used in scripture of a new state that is brought in to replace an old one, rather than of the process whereby this is brought about. Matthew’s reference to the regeneration anticipates a new state of things that is to be brought about when ‘the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory’. Then, all that is not suited to God, or consistent with His will, shall have been removed. That millennial kingdom has other descriptions, too, such as ‘the times of restitution of all things’, Acts 3. 21, and ‘the dispensation of the fullness of times’, Eph. 1. 10, both of which imply a new state of things. It will also be the time when all things in earth and in heaven are reconciled to Himself, Col. 1. 20. In Titus chapter 3 ‘the washing of regeneration’, which has an objective force, refers to the new state that we have been brought into by new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, which has a subjective force, is His moral power day by day in the lives of those who have enthroned Christ in the heart.
Our need as sinners had two aspects. Firstly, we were dead, having no principle of life towards God and, secondly, we were guilty and in need of justification. In 1 John chapter 5 all of our need was met by the One who came by water and blood. Water, a figure of imparted life, meets our deadness: blood, standing for life sacrificially laid down, meets our guilt. These two matters are brought together in 1 John chapter 4 verses 9 and 10. In verse 9, ‘God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him’: this connects with what is symbolized by water. In verse 10, He ‘sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’, something clearly connected with His blood.
Blood, then, is for our guilt, which arises from what we have done; water is for our natural state – what we are. The one is connected to our justification, the other to our new birth and resultant regeneration. All of our need, therefore, has been fully met by the work of Christ, by which everything that was a hindrance to relationship with God has been removed.
There are various passages in scripture where blood and water are together. The priests knew the value of blood at the brazen altar and water at the laver. On the occasion of the consecration of the priests, Aaron and his sons were washed all over with water and were anointed with blood. The leper knew something of the same in regard to his cleansing. In 1 Corinthians chapter 6 the apostle reminds the believers that they have been washed – the action of water – and sanctified and justified – connected with blood. In Hebrews chapter 10, our hearts have been sprinkled, by blood, and our bodies washed, with pure water. This line of things gains heightened interest when we remember that in John chapter 19 there flowed, miraculously, from the side of our dead Saviour blood and water; and that in 1 John chapter 5 He is spoken of as having come by water and blood.
In John chapter 3 there is no reference to the blood of Christ because it is not the forgiveness of sins that is in view, or the removal of guilt; but the Lord Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’, John 3. 5. The water is, of course, nothing to do with Christian baptism. We know this because it had not yet been instituted and it is, in any event, connected with death rather than life. Also, when the Saviour speaks in verse 6 of being ‘born of the Spirit’, He makes no reference to water.
In scripture, a mass of water often speaks of judgement, such as in Psalm 42 verse 7, which says, ‘all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me’. Running water may speak of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus said of the believer that, ‘out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water’ and He makes it clear that He is referring to the Holy Spirit, John 7. 38, 39. Peaceful water speaks of the word of God; the psalmist famously said, ‘Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word’, Ps. 119. 9.
In John chapter 3, then, a person is born again by water and the Spirit. The mention of water is a reference to the word of God and the reference to the Spirit has in view the Holy Spirit. In the new birth the word of God is the means, and the Holy Spirit is the agent, by which it is accomplished. It is by the word that washing takes place. In addition to the reference to the washing of regeneration in Titus chapter 3, the Apostle Paul speaks in Ephesians chapter 5 verse 26 of ‘the washing of water by the word’, something which happens when a person is saved. Peter, in 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 23, states that we have been ‘born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever’. The incorruptible seed is not a reference to the whole of the word of God but that part of it which the Holy Spirit applies to our hearts at the time of new birth.
It is very important to recognize that Nicodemus did not need an education for his intellect so much as he needed quickening for his soul. Without birth from above, he could neither see nor enter the messianic kingdom. As he was a teacher in Israel, he should have known this, because of the word of Ezekiel chapter 36 verses 25 and 26. ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean … A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh’. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and therefore has its origin in human nature, which is fallen, dead and dominated by sin. New birth is of the Spirit, an act of God, and it is spiritual in its nature.
The need for new birth is not limited to Israelites. Our Saviour said in verse 8, ‘so is every one that is born of the Spirit’. He had said that you cannot stop the wind blowing or redirect it, for its origin and destination are unknown. The wind is, of course, the Holy Spirit. It is an allusion reminiscent of Acts chapter 2 when He came as a rushing mighty wind, but it has its roots in Ezekiel chapter 37 where the wind, v. 9, clearly relates to the Spirit, v. 14. The Lord Jesus is indicating that the new birth is always connected with the dealings of God with the individual and is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God, brought about by the word of God.
When Jesus said to Nicodemus that he did not believe when He told him of earthly things, v. 12, He is referring not to water, wind or natural birth but to the new birth itself, which in John chapter 3 is earthly and connected to the manifested kingdom of God. However, new birth is needed, whether it stands connected to the earthly or the heavenly side of things. In this era of heavenly things, new birth is connected with divine purpose regarding salvation and eternal life for the individual. New birth is also connected to the matter of faith, occurring simultaneously with a person believing in His name, John 1. 12, 13.
As a result of having been born again, a person is possessed of a new nature. This does not mean that that person does not still have the flesh; we need to wait for the redemption of the body to be rid of it. In 1 John chapter 3 verse 9 we learn that the person who has been begotten of God, and is therefore a child of God, does not practise sin, ‘for his seed remaineth in him’. The seed here is not the seed sown by the sower, as in Matthew chapter 13, but the incorruptible seed of 1 Peter chapter 1. The Holy Spirit, by the word of God, produces divine life. This is a unique statement in scripture and points to an incorruptible nature now possessed by the believer; seed always brings forth of its own kind.
This leads to communion with the Father, love of the brethren, the practising of righteousness and unworldly conduct, all found in John’s first Epistle.