Job asked a rhetorical question to his friends who were urging him to repent, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” The answer that followed was “no one!” (Job 14:4). Please note that the answer Job gave was a resounding and emphatic “no one!” A similar question was asked by Jeremiah to the tribe of Judah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23). He answered them that if this could happen “then you also may do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” The message in these two passages, and many similar ones, is crystal clear that human beings are plagued with a disease called sin from which they cannot cure or extricate themselves. The hold of sin upon them is firm. Among those born of woman, with an exemption of the sinless Son of God, no one can bring a clean thing out of something unclean. Human beings are accustomed to doing evil. The remedy to the bondage of sin in human beings lies outside them.

 Although it is impossible to heal ourselves from sin and its consequences, with God it is possible. Scripture declares, “With God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). God sets men free by regenerating them. The subject of regeneration is one which we find in the Scriptures and is a very important one, yet it is insufficiently expounded in the pulpits today. In spite of the clear teaching from God’s Word about it there are still many misunderstandings. The Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, are replete with teachings about it. Since it is a wide subject, in this article we shall confine ourselves to the necessity and nature of regeneration.

What regeneration is not

Due to misunderstandings in many people’s minds about regeneration, perhaps it is appropriate to state what it is not.

(a)   Regeneration is not merely a moral change. It is not an improvement of one’s behaviour. A person may abandon certain sins in his life because of the misery, pain and other consequences those sins bring upon him and his family and decide to “patch up” his life. This patching up of his life is not regeneration. We are not in any way pouring cold water on moral reformation – it is a good thing – but it falls far short of regeneration. It is true that when a person has experienced the new birth (another name for regeneration) there is a moral change that progressively takes place. This change is the fruit of the new birth. It is the effect and not the cause of regeneration. Nicodemus, Cornelius, Lydia were not profane persons before conversion. One was a respected teacher of the law, Cornelius feared God, while Lydia worshipped God. Though by God’s common grace they were kept from open wickedness, they were still sinful. They needed to undergo the new birth to qualify to enter the kingdom of God.

  • Regeneration is not effected or achieved by undergoing water baptism or any ceremonial ordinance. In the history of the Church, certain people have taught that regeneration is infused in the soul by being baptised. This is sometimes called baptismal regeneration. This view of regeneration amounts to this: If you are not baptised in water, you are not yet born again. This makes baptism seem like it has supernatural powers to effect the new birth. We reject this view of regeneration. It is not taught anywhere in the Scriptures. We believe in the ordinance of baptism for believers. It has a place in the believer’s life. However, regeneration is not synonymous with baptism.
    • The third error on regeneration is what we may call decisional regeneration. The Puritans of the sixteenth century would call it moral persuasion. This means a person decides to be born again without the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is taught in many pulpits today. A preacher at the end of his sermon makes an altar call. Those who respond are made to say the sinner’s prayer. They pray after the preacher by repeating his prayer, sentence by sentence. At the end of that prayer they are usually declared “born gain”. The Scriptures teach that the new birth is “not of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). In saying that Scripture does not teach decisional regeneration, we are not denying the reality of the human response in believing in Christ. What we maintain is that God’s work of regeneration is wholly sovereign and gracious.
    • Regeneration is not a creation of new faculties. By faculties I mean the abilities of the soul, such as mental abilities. The natural faculties of the soul remain unchanged in the new birth. This is so because in the Fall (in Genesis 3), he never lost these faculties. What he lost was the moral perfection in which he was created. It is clear that in God’s common grace, man, even in his depravity, has been able to do amazing things. Technological advancement is one of them, and it is so because he did not lose any of these faculties.

There are many errors on regeneration, but these are perhaps the most common.

The nature of regeneration

The Bible uses many different metaphors to describe regeneration, such as:

  • Being born again or being born from above (John 3:3). Both meanings are intended in this passage. It is called the new birth or being born from above because it has a striking analogy to the natural birth in that it is the beginning of spiritual life. It is the moment when life is imparted to a spiritually dead person.
    • Being born of God (John 1:13). Regeneration is such a big change that those who experience it are said to be born of God. It means that the change which takes place in the heart of a sinner is accomplished by the power of God alone.
    • The new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). From this figure of speech we learn that the change that is produced in the renewed heart of a person is so great that it is equivalent to the act of creation. It is a recreation in Christ, i.e. “his workmanship created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10).
    • The first resurrection. This may surprise the pre- and post-millennialists who believe that the first resurrection in Revelation 20:4-5 is the resurrection of the body. If you compare John 5:25 “Most assuredly, I say to you the hour is coming and now is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” with Revelation 20:4-5, it must be obvious that the first resurrection in the book of Revelation is not that of the body, but that of the soul. Jesus taught that “he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” He who believes in Christ obtains everlasting life now and has passed from spiritual death. When Jesus says, “The hour is coming and now is,” it means presently some are passing from spiritual death into life. It is not in the future, but is taking place now. Spiritual death is not a myth; it is a reality. When those who are spiritually dead are made alive, this is a resurrection of the soul to life.
    • Taking out the heart of stone and being given a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). The heart of stone is a heart that does not respond to God in love and obedience. In regeneration this kind of heart is removed and replaced with a heart that responds to God in love and obedience.

Having looked at the various figures of speech used to describe the new birth, we can define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is an act of God alone in which he renews the human heart, making it alive when it was dead in trespasses and sins. What then is the nature of regeneration?

  • The new birth is the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit. He renews the human heart by his powerful grace. The heart is the deepest point of the human person. The Holy Spirit acts on it; hence a sinner does not contribute anything to the new life imparted to him by God. When regeneration takes place in the heart of a sinner he is completely passive. It is wholly accomplished by the Spirit. Nicodemus asked if the Lord meant that a man should enter a second time into his mother’s womb in order to be born again. The Lord responded that to be born again was to be born of the Spirit. This teaching about the renewal of the human heart by the Spirit is also taught in Titus 3:5; “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.” In the plan of salvation, it is the Spirit who applies to individuals the grace of God that is in Christ. Since man does not contribute anything to the new birth, this is a sovereign and gracious act of the Holy Spirit. He only is born again who has been renewed by the Spirit.
    • The Spirit renews the heart instantaneously. The renewal is not in phases nor is it a process like sanctification. The Spirit renews the heart by giving the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Although a person is not entirely sanctified or made sinless at the time of regeneration, the principle of holiness is implanted in the heart.
    • The Spirit works sovereignly and mysteriously in his renewal of the human heart. The Lord told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from and where it goes “(John 3:8). William Hendriksen puts it beautifully: “The relation of the wind to your body resembles that of the Spirit to your soul. The wind does as it pleases; so does the Spirit. Its operation is sovereign, incomprehensible and mysterious.” We cannot understand the operation of the Spirit as he renews the heart. We are only conscious of the effects that follow regeneration.
    • Regeneration is a basic and radical change. People do not enter the kingdom of God by trying on their own to improve their moral lives. Jonathan Edwards declared, “Conversion is the greatest change that men undergo in this world.” It is because of this change that the Bible says, “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold all things have become new.” A soul that once wallowed in sin is set free from the bondage of sin. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus sets free from the bondage of sin by regeneration. In the new birth, a vital principle of holiness is implanted in the heart. So those who are born again become slaves of righteousness. They become partakers of his divine nature and imitators of God.

The necessity of regeneration

In John 3:5-6 we read these words: “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” In these words addressed to Nicodemus the necessity of the new birth is clearly spelt out. Archibald Alexander (1772–1851), the first professor of the renowned Princeton Theological Seminary in USA, said this about the necessity of regeneration: “The necessity of a change of character in man arises from the fact that by nature all men are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and therefore if any of the human race are ever saved, they must be regenerated.” If it was possible for a man to enter a second time in his mother’s womb, he would still be sinful, the renewal of his heart is absolutely necessary. All human beings without exception have inherited sin and are morally incapable of doing what is good. They have inherited this sin from their first parents, Adam and Eve. “Through one man sin entered the world and death through sin and death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12) This means that all human beings, including babies, are spiritually dead. They are influenced by Satan and are in active rebellion against God. In this condition they are totally unable to free themselves and are exposed to the wrath of God. In order for them to come out of this deplorable sinful state, the new birth is not an option but a must. “You must be born again.” The Spirit has to renew the heart which is desperately wicked. Someone may ask, “But what about justification?” Are we not declared righteous before God when we put our faith in Christ for salvation? When God justifies the ungodly the result is forgiveness of our sins. Justification has in view our relationship with God. We are accepted in the beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, because of his finished redemptive work. In regeneration, God deals with our sinful nature. We quote Archibald Alexander again: “Even if a man could be justified and yet remain under the power of sin, he could not be happy, because sin contains in itself the seeds of misery and such a one would certainly be incapable of participating in the joys of heaven, which require a holy nature to perceive or relish them.” Both justification and regeneration are necessary and are accomplished on the basis of Christ’s finished redemptive work. We need to say a little more about how regeneration is related to conversion. Conversion is repentance from sin and faith in Christ. Throughout our article we have stressed that regeneration is an act of God alone upon the sinful heart, but does this mean there is no need for repentance and faith? Regeneration is an act of God whereby he imparts life, whereas conversion is the act of man in response to the spiritual life imparted to him. Repentance and faith are fruits of regeneration. This means that regeneration precedes repentance and faith. Where regeneration takes place, repentance and faith will follow. Scriptures sometimes speak of both of them as one. Conversion is never nullified in regeneration; man still needs to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.

Application

Concerning the nature and necessity of regeneration, here are the few inferences:

  • Considering the fact that all human beings are sinful by nature as Psalm 51:5 teaches. It is absolutely necessary that our natures are renewed by the Spirit. The only remedy for our sinful nature is the renewal of the Spirit.
  • If man cannot renew his heart except by the Holy Spirit, oh how deplorable are the effects of sin! Those who are unrenewed are in a desperate plight. They should be objects of our compassion. We should desire and pray that God may give them the new birth by the Spirit.
  • The renewing of the human heart is the commencement of holy living. There can be no true holiness where there is no regeneration. Holiness emanates from a renewed heart; it is not merely outward. Since the Lord has planted in the regenerate the principle of holiness, they should make every effort to be holy. God has written his law upon the tablets of their hearts. Believers have no excuse to continue in sin. The power of sin has been broken. Sin has received a fatal blow! We can be like God in his moral character. Oh what a privilege!
  • If God has quickened you who were dead in trespasses and sins, this should evoke praise from you to the three persons in the blessed Trinity. God sent his word and healed you from your sin. May this melt your heart into fervent praise!

Bibliography

1. Alexander, Archibald (2005), A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books.

2. Barnes, Albert (1978), Notes on the New Testament, Kregel Publications.

3. Hendriksen, William (1998),New Testament Commentary on John, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.

4. Owen, John (1981), The Works of John Owen, Volume 3, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust.