The third chapter of John is very familiar to everyone who has spent time in the Word of God. The term "born again" is familiar to believers and unbelievers alike. We are familiar with the term, but do we understand what it means? We know that people must be born again, but there are many different opinions on how a person is born again.
The term "born again" is synonymous with "regeneration." Being born again is the same as "receiving a new heart" (Ezekiel 36:26), or what Ephesians 2 calls being "made alive". 1 Peter calls it "being called out of darkness into his marvelous light". All of these terms refer to what theologians call "regeneration". A study of John 3:1-8, where Jesus used the term "born again", will give us an understanding of regeneration. Hodge says that regeneration is "the instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life. Regeneration, therefore, is a spiritual resurrection, the beginning of a new life." Thiesseen says, "Regeneration may be defined as the communication of divine life to the soul, as the impartation of a new nature, or heart and the production of a new creation."
There are many different views of regeneration within the Church. The Pelagian view says that regeneration is a moral transformation, a work of man. Most liberals today hold this view. It was condemned by the Church in 431 at the Counsel of Ephesus. Practically, the Pelagian says, "I can save myself by my works." Adam was the first Pelagian; he tried to cover his sin with fig leaves. God killed animals and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins to picture Christ's righteousness.
The Catholic view says that regeneration is accomplished by baptism, so it is a work of man through a divine ordinance. The Church of Christ also holds the view of baptismal regeneration. The Arminian view is called "semi-pelagianism." Regeneration is not exclusively God's or man's work - it is the fruit of man's choice to cooperate with the divine influences. They teach that the work of man, a decision to trust Christ, is prior to the work of God. This view is held by most evangelicals. They believe it was necessary for them, in an act of their own will, to cooperate with the grace found in the preaching of the Word.
Then there is the position that we hold here at Berean Bible Church, called the "Calvinistic or reformed view," which teaches that "regeneration is of the Lord"; God made us alive who were dead; God made us willing who were unwilling. Salvation from beginning to end is a work of God, according to the reformed view.
The basic debate in the Church is between Calvinism and Arminianism. Those who hold the Pelagian or Catholic views are not Christians, because they trust themselves, not Christ. Calvinism proclaims a God who saves, while Arminianism speaks of a God who enables man to save himself. One makes salvation depend on
the work of God, the other on a work of man; one regards faith as part of God's gift of salvation, the other as man's contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of salvation to God, the other divides the praise between God, who built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it.
What does the Bible teach about regeneration?
John 3:1-3 (NKJV) There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus, a typical representative of Pharisaic Judaism, would have stressed the careful observance of the law and the traditions of the elders. For the loyal Pharisee, this was the way of salvation. Jesus teaches here that a radical rebirth is necessary for salvation. The demand is repeated three times in John 3:3,5,&7. Nicodemus is left without the slightest doubt that he is not asked to obey more law, but the power of God within him must remake him completely. John 3 dispels any notion of works as a means of salvation.
Jesus tells us in John 3:3 of the necessity of regeneration. We must be born again, because the condition of humanity demands it according to Ephesians 2:1 (NKJV): "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins". Fallen man, in his natural state lacks all power to commune with God, because man is spiritually dead. The Greek phrase for "born again" is: "born from above or again." We could translate: "unless one is born again" or "unless a man is reborn from above". Apart from the new birth, man cannot even understand God. This little-understood truth is also taught in:
John 12:37-39 (NKJV) But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, 38 that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: "Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" 39 Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: 40 "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them."
They did not believe, because they could not believe. Paul teaches this same thing in:
1 Corinthians 2:14 (NKJV) "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."
Who is the natural man? Jude uses this same Greek word translated: "natural" here and "sensual" in Jude 17. Jude says, "sensual, having not the Spirit." So, the natural man is the man without the spirit of God. Regeneration is absolutely necessary, because apart from regeneration man has no ability to understand or desire the things of God.
"Nicodemus said to Him [Jesus], "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4). Nicodemus'
reply may be interpreted in two ways: He could have understood Jesus in a physical sense, but it is more likely he meant, "How can a man whose habits and ways of thinking have been fixed by age expect to change radically?" Physical rebirth is impossible, but is spiritual change any more feasible? Regeneration is apparently a sheer impossibility! Jesus answered:
"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 the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' (John 3:5-7)
We see here the efficient cause of regeneration: "unless one is born of water and the Spirit". The meaning of this phrase is hotly debated: Does one have to be baptized to be saved? Does "born of water" simply refer to physical birth? The best solution is to translate it: "unless one is born of water even the Spirit". Titus 3:4-5 supports this reading:
Titus 3:4-5 "But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, 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".
The renewing of the Holy Spirit is a further explanation of regeneration. Clark translates it this way: "the washing effected by regeneration is the renewal". The Holy Spirit cleanses us through regeneration so that being born of water and being born of the Spirit refer to the same thing.
There are five characteristics of regeneration - let us examine each one to gain a better understanding:
1. Regeneration is solely a work of God.
Regeneration is to bring to birth again. It is a work that a creature cannot do; only God can do it, as Ephesians teaches in:
Ephesians 2:5: (NKJV) "even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)".
We were dead, and God gave us life. When a person is dead, he cannot see, feel or act. Until God gives a person life, he is dead to spiritual things. Man is passive in the new birth; he does no more to produce his own birth than Lazarus did to produce his resurrection:
John 11:43 (NKJV) Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!"
Did Lazarus have the ability in himself to obey that command? No, he was dead! He had no ability at all. Unsaved man, natural man, does not have the ability to believe the gospel. Regeneration is solely a work of God whereby we are made alive.
2. Regeneration is an instantaneous act below the level of human consciousness.
You don't feel it ! No one can say, "I felt my new birth". Do you remember your natural birth? No, because it is below your consciousness. You do remember things that happen afterward or things that result from your birth. My earliest memories are from when I was around four years old. My earliest memories of my new birth were when I began to feel conviction of sin. How much does a dead man feel? The new birth is non-experiential. It is mysterious and only recognized by its effects. That truth is illustrated by Jesus in:
John 3:8: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."
3. Regeneration is effected without means.
Most people think that the means of regeneration is the Word of God or faith. But regeneration is a direct act of God upon the spirit of a man. Truth cannot be the means of regeneration, because before a man is regenerated, he is blind and cannot see the truth, deaf and cannot hear the truth, dead and cannot respond to the truth. Truth cannot be the means of the new birth when the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit as 1 Corinthians 2:14 teaches. The increase of light will not enable a blind man to see; the disease of the eye must first be cured. So must a man be regenerated by the Spirit before he can receive the truth. It is solely a work of the Spirit, and that's why we pray for the lost.
The Greek text of 1 Peter 1:23 helps clarify the concept of regeneration without means: "having been born again not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible through the Word of the living and abiding God." Those two prepositions "of" and "through" are different. The preposition "of" indicates the source. We are born of God. And "through" indicates the instrumentality. The Holy Spirit gives us life, so we can receive the Word.
1 John 3:9 (NKJV) "Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God."
The incorruptible seed is the life of God. The new life is not imparted because you believe the truth; you believe the truth because you have been given new life.
Proverbs 20:12 (NKJV) says, "The hearing ear and the seeing eye, The LORD has made them both."
Regeneration is a direct act of God upon the spirit of man. It is a spiritual resurrection.
4. Regeneration renews the will.
The unregenerate man is unable to be willing. He naturally does not will to please God, so salvation is not of human volition; man cannot will to be saved. He must be made willing by God. This is clearly taught in:
John 1:11-13 He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them have He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, bor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (KJV)
These verses say that Jesus came to His own, Israel, and they did not receive Him. The ones who did receive Him were not born of blood - they did not receive Him through heredity or natural descent; they were not born of the will of the flesh - through human decision or volition; they were not born by the will of man - through the efforts of friends, pastors, or relatives. Those who received Jesus were born of God - they were made willing by a supernatural act of God. We see the concept of God's supernatural intervention in the salvation of a person in:
Romans 9:13-16 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have Mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (KJV)
Paul says that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth; these phrases speak of human effort. Salvation is of God with human volition being a secondary activity on the part of man. In regeneration, God supernaturally works in a man's heart to give him new life, so that he who was blind is able to see, and he who rebelled against God is made willing to do His will. This activity of God is emphasized in:
Ezekiel 36:24-27 For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 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. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. (KJV)
This passage shows us the seven "I wills" of God in regeneration. In Acts 16, how did Lydia become a Christian? The passage refers to Lydia by saying, "whose heart the Lord opened". That is regeneration.
Theologians have developed what is called the "Ordo salutis" or the "order of salvation", which is the logical order of events in salvation; like some other foundational doctrines, this is not spelled out in Scripture, but it can be logically deduced by looking at the whole of Scripture. Usually these events are indistinguishable in a person's life:
Election is an idea seen throughout Scripture:
2 Timothy 1:9 (NKJV) "Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,".
Ephesians 1:4-5 (NKJV) just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,
2. State of death:
Every unbeliever is in a state of death. All men are born separated from God, so that they are spiritually dead and unable to respond to God.
Romans 5:112 KJV "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned."
Regeneration is by grace without means. In a supernatural act, God gives a person a new heart, and he is spiritually alive.
Ephesians 2:1-6 (NKJV) And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
You may be thinking, "It didn't happen to me that way. I believed and then I received new life." You are looking at it from your experience and not from the standard of God's Word. Before you could ever believe, you had to be made alive.
4. Effectual calling by the Word:
When a person hears the Word of God after he is made alive, he responds. Often the response is guilt. The weight of sin has no effect on a spiritually dead man just as physical weight has no effect on a corpse: put all the weight you want on a corpse, and it will never complain. Acts 13:48 demonstrates the effectual calling by the Word:
Acts 13:48 "Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." (NKJV)
Faith is belief or trust in Christ and Christ alone for our salvation. Faith is the response of regeneration, not the cause of it. Regeneration precedes faith. This is demonstrated in:
Acts 16:14 (NKJV) "Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.".
God opened her heart, and she responded in faith. If at regeneration we can say we have conception by God, at faith we have birth.
Our conversion is the final step.
Acts 16:31 "So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." (NKJV)
This is the logical order of the events of salvation, but temporally they are often instantaneous. We cannot see the order from the standpoint of experience. Like spokes in a wheel, when one moves, they all move.
Based on the "ordo salutis", what is the evidence of regeneration? It is faith!
1 John 5:1 (NKJV) "Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him."
The Greek text reads, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been [perfect tense] born of God." Wuest translates it, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, out from God has been born and as a result is his child". Law said, "The Divine begetting is the antecedent (go before) not the consequent of the believing." Jesus stated this concept in:
John 5:24: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, [not as a result of, but does so because] and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life."
What are the practical applications of understanding the order of salvation? A person's beliefs about regeneration will have practical effects in all of his Christian activity. When he understands that salvation is God's work, he will not be so caught up in methods or programs for witnessing, because he knows that only the Holy Spirit can create new life. Obvious examples of theology affecting practice abound; the advice given in a book entitled How to Boost Your Church Attendance exemplifies how a misunderstanding of God's work in salvation can affect preaching:
Many of us in our preaching will make such statements as, 'Now in conclusion; Finally may I say; My last point is.....' These statements are sometimes dangerous. The sinner knows five minutes before you finish; hence he digs in and prepares himself for the invitation so that he does not respond. However, if your closing is abrupt, and a lost person does not suspect that you are about finished, you have crept up on him, and he will not have time to prepare himself for the invitation. Many people may be reached using this method.
Clearly, the author thinks his methods are saving people. He thinks that we can trick people into salvation. He doesn't understand that salvation is solely a work of God.
Secondly, our understanding of regeneration should give us a newfound commitment to pray for the lost. Since God is the One who saves, we need to pray that He would save the lost. God has decreed the means of salvation as well as the end, and among the means is prayer. God has elected certain people to be saved, but He has also decreed that they will be saved through the preaching of the Gospel,
therefore, the Gospel is one of the appointed means for working out the eternal counsel of the Lord; according to the Bible, prayer is another means:
1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NKJV) Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Romans 10:1 (NKJV) Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
Paul prayed for Israel's salvation. The same man who wrote Romans 9, which teaches the sovereignty of God in salvation, also wrote Romans 10:1 where he speaks of his prayers for the lost. If God wasn't sovereign, there wouldn't be much sense in praying to Him. Paul asked God to do for people what they could not do for themselves.
Thirdly, an understanding of regeneration should cause a deep attitude of gratefulness to God. We didn't deserve to be regenerated, because we deserve hell, but God in His love reached out to us and made us alive. This is the gospel. The gospel is: "God saves sinners."
GOD - the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power, and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people; the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing.
SAVES - does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies.
SINNERS - men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual condition. This is the gospel, God saves sinners.
Apart from His work of regeneration, no one would have ever sought Him, and everyone would die in his sins.
John 6:44 (NKJV) "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.
A true understanding of regeneration will humble us as nothing else can, and bring the heart into lowly submission and profound gratitude before God.