More than simply knowing a truth, it is equally important to reflect on its practical implications. A study on regeneration particularly requires this. But what, in the first place, is regeneration? Regeneration can be defined as the act of God the Spirit by which he supernaturally transforms the heart of an elect sinner to exercise faith and repentance unto salvation.

                Several points deserve underscoring. First, regeneration is an act of God. Second, it is an act of God the Holy Spirit. Third, it is a supernatural instantaneous work. Fourth, it is performed on the elect sinner. Fifth, it is the source of faith and repentance.

                The prophet Ezekiel gives a pithy description of the radical and transformatory power of regeneration: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27). As can be seen, this is a resurrection of some sort, it is a new birth and its subject is a new creation, spiritually and morally.

This has ramifications.

The role of the gospel preacher

Regeneration, although solely performed by God, does not preclude the role of the preacher or gospel witness. This needs to be clarified. The first proof of regeneration is faith. But faith comes by hearing the Word (Romans 10:17). The faith to be conceived in regeneration is served by the message proclaimed. For this reason, rather than negate gospel proclamation, regeneration obligates it.

Regeneration, however, is not performed by the preacher’s persuasiveness or eloquence. Even though regeneration occurs in the broad atmosphere of gospel proclamation, and the sinner actively processes the gospel truths without which conversion will not occur, the work remains supernatural and divine in its entirety. The work remains the absolute doing of the Spirit in no less a sense than that of the surgeon operating on a completely anesthetised patient.

The truth of regeneration, for this reason, imposes strictures on gospel proclaimers. The foremost is that they should not go beyond faithfully proclaiming the gospel message. To resort to tactics that elicit intellect-bypass responses, is to deny the role of the Spirit in regeneration. Examples of such tactics include “altar calls” and “sinners’ prayers.”

In the “altar call” practice the unconverted, at the end of the preaching, are “encouraged,” through much psychological manipulation or coercion, to publicly raise their hands, stand to their feet, or walk to the front as a public show of faith. It is generally held that Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) was the first professed evangelist to use this method.

In the “sinners’ prayer,” the unconverted are urged to repeat a prayer offered by one of the worship leaders.

Now, these tactics obviously have no biblical warrant. And quite apart from the fact that they have no biblical precedence, they totally disregard the role of the Spirit in conversion. They are perpetuated on the premise that salvation is entirely man’s decision, in direct conflict with the teaching of our Lord that “…no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (John 6:65). Preachers who adopt such tactics naturally exhibit little knowledge and no faith in the regenerating work of the Spirit. They partake in Arminian and Semi-Pelagian errors.

The fact that God has, in his sovereign grace, overruled and chosen to save sinners through these unwarranted methods does not in any way legitimise them. Children can be born out of wedlock without legitimising the illicit means by which they are born.

All this does not, however, stand opposed to making strong appeals during gospel preaching. Beyond didactically and persuasively presenting the gospel, the preacher ought to passionately urge the unconverted to repent and trust in the Saviour. “Behold the lamb of God” urges John. Peter cried, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Strong appeals are appropriate. These, however, are not equivalent to demands for instant public professions of faith.

The role of the gospel recipient

If regeneration is the work of God, it is expected that the unconverted will not have much to do but to wait upon God before believing. This is a mistake. There is a very intricate interplay of roles, around (and not in) regeneration, between the Spirit of God and the believing sinner.

At some point the sinner has the role of carefully listening to the message of salvation, reflecting on its demands, and rationally endeavouring to obey it. At another, perhaps even simultaneously, the Spirit is imperceptively working on the sinner’s intellect, heart and will to enable him or her to trust this Word and act upon it repentantly. The obstetrician in the new birth is not the preacher or the sinner. It is the preached Word applied by the Holy Spirit. Thus it is said, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth…” (James 1:18).

Though activated by the Spirit, the exercises of believing and repenting are human activities, and these constitute conversion as distinguished from regeneration. Regeneration proper is entirely the work of God. Man is passive in its performance. He only participates in it prior to and posterior to its occurrence.

The instantaneous nature of regeneration and the faith it immediately activates is what creates the impression of collaboration of human and divine activity. In truth there is no collaboration.

Yes, the sinner has the duty of hearing the Word, believing its promises and turning from sin, according to its injunctions. Again it is the sinner’s duty to pray for mercy until it is granted (cf. Acts 8:22). Yet, aware that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14), the Holy Spirit, for his part, inscrutably enlivens the human faculties required to exercise faith. The experience of Lydia is a classic exhibition of the Spirit aiding human faith (Acts 16:14).

                Frankly, it is a mystery how the Spirit prepares the sinner’s heart for the gospel and later uses the message imbibed by the sinner to produce in him both faith and repentance. The Lord Jesus noted this mystery when he said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Both the criteria for selecting the subjects of regeneration and its form are inscrutable.

The role of the gospel preaching church

The church being the family into which believing sinners are born, must naturally be influenced by the doctrine of regeneration. The obvious influence this doctrine ought to have on the church burdened for the unconverted is a commitment to intense prayer. If human effort where sufficient for preaching or believing the gospel, prayer would be accepted as an extra optional activity. This not being the case, the aid of God in producing the new life must be sought earnestly, knowing that, nothing else will. Entire resignation to the power of God is manifest proof of belief in his sovereign regenerating grace.

Repudiated is the practice of baptismal regeneration. In this practice, infants and adults are baptised in water with the belief that this act effects spiritual renewal. But if regeneration is the absolute work of the Spirit, surely water baptism can have no part in it. Baptism, in Scripture, is the outward testimony to the fruit of regeneration and not its cause. And it is the church rather than the Spirit that performs it. Regeneration, on the contrary, is performed by the Spirit exclusively. Additionally, the sacrament of baptism ought to be performed on the regenerate, not the unregenerate.

Much else could be said, but suffice it to say that the doctrine of regeneration should bring hope to the hopeless sinner. To know that my feeble faith can be intercepted and capacitated by the Spirit to produce redeeming faith is heartening.

This truth should also motivate the preacher. It is hard work to prepare an exquisite sermon. It is harder work to tune oneself up into the best shape required to be used of God in its proclamation. But it is utterly impossible to produce conversions, whatever the excellence of the sermon. To know that God only requires faithful preaching for him to do the rest by his Spirit, is news most comforting and inspiring. The doctrine of regeneration, therefore, does shape ones attitude and approaches to the ministry of securing conversions.