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Regeneration: Born-Again, Born from Above

“Regeneration is a mighty and powerful change wrought in the soul by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit, wherein a vital principle, a new habit, … and a divine nature are put into and framed in the heart, enabling it to act holily and pleasingly to God… a certain spiritual and supernatural principle… infused by God… an habitual holy principle wrought in us by God… what is changed is the Spirit of the mind, the dominant tendency… the mind itself is not changed in essence or in substance, but its bias, the prevailing character is changed… a new spiritual sense and new dispositions… giving a person ability and disposition… not a new faculty of understanding… but a new kind of exercise for the same faculty of understanding… lies deeper than consciousness… (a giving of) stability and perseverance.”  These words are a summary of Stephen Charnock, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Hodge in John Laidlaw, The Biblical Doctrine of Man, pp. 257-260 (Klock and Klock, 1983 Reprint of 1895).

My definition of regeneration is the change wrought by the Holy Spirit in the soul or spirit(1) of a person that changes from trust (belief or faith) in oneself, as the source of truth about life and how to live it,  to trust in the Bible, as God offers forgiveness in Jesus Christ and tells us who we are and what our responsibilities are.  Regeneration is initiation of sanctification.  Other terms in the Bible for regeneration are “born-again” and “born-from-above.” 

What happens at regeneration is commonly misunderstood among Christians and leads to wrong priorities.  The common focus is on salvation(2), forgiveness in Jesus Christ, the (seemingly) simple statement of John 3:16.  This focus is not to be minimized, but neither is the source of that information, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible.

One of the best summary definitions is found in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 (See reference below).  “The new birth (is ) by the grace of God; that change by which the will and natural enmity of man to God and his law are subdued, and a principle of supreme love to God and his law, or holy affections, are implanted in the heart."

Or, more simply, regeneration gives to a man or woman the "ears to hear!"  (Matthew 11:15)

The Bible is much more than the simple message of salvation.  If that were its only focus, it could have been much shorter.  There is the larger Old Testament and the large part of the New Testament that orders a way of life.  To focus on Christ, as important and necessary as that is, is to miss the greater instruction of the Bible.

Ask yourself this question, “How much of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation do I really know?”  Would God have written useless words?  The full application of all of the Bible is what regeneration and its subsequent process, sanctification, is directed towards.  The Cultural or Creation Mandate preceded the Fall in Genesis 1:26-28, and was reinforced in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.”  Making disciples involves much more than just “saved” and waiting to die and go to heaven.  (For more on the Cultural Mandate, see <Link to be determined>

No Knowledge Is Imparted in Regeneration

Once, when I was reading Abraham Kuyper's Principles of Sacred Theology, a simple statement exploded on my mind, and I believe, is one of the major keys to understanding salvation and the Christian life.  That phrase is, "Regeneration by itself is no enlightening."  That is, as powerful and life-changing as this work of the Holy Spirit is, regeneration conveys no knowledge.  Regeneration is a change in one's disposition or attitude and the object of one’s belief (faith). (Read again the introduction above.)  But, the knowledge of what has happened and an understanding of the finished work of Jesus Christ is not conveyed by regeneration.  That knowledge is conveyed by the Scriptures, spoken or read, and is included in God's working faith and salvation in the individual.  But, that know is not conveyed by regeneration per se.  The change is in the heart, not in the mind.  (See Reference, Stob... below.)  The mind is not the "head," as in "heart vs. head" that many Christians portray as some important contrast.  (See Heart and Head.)

This lack of conveyed knowledge is the reason for the Scriptures.  Through a diligent study of it, we learn what God has done for our salvation and what he requires of us.  That knowledge is not conveyed by regeneration, but by faith in action in studying the Bible.  God's plan is for "transformation" (metamorphosis, the same word for "transfiguration" in Matthew 17:12) by the "renewing" of the regenerated person's mind (Romans 12:2).  The heart is regenerated so that the mind can be renewed to the transformation of the one regenerated.

Acceptance of the Bible as the very Word of God written and governing principle of one's life  is exactly what faith is.  While the focus of faith is in Jesus Christ for salvation, what does one know of Jesus Christ other than what is taught in the Bible?  “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).  There is no knowledge of Jesus Christ outside of the Bible. 

If knowledge were imparted with regeneration, then God would be giving new special revelation.  That is, He would be adding to the Scriptures.  The canon (all the books of the Bible and their content) are fixed now and until the end of time (Revelation 22:18-19).

Translation into the Kingdom of God

Regeneration establishes a person as a member of the Kingdom of God  and a citizen of heaven (John 3:5).  So that to be “born again” is to be a member of Christ’s Kingdom and His Church (Matthew 16:18).

Because regeneration is a permanent change in the soul, a Christian cannot help doing good works.  Our souls have been altered so that we cannot live other than to follow the instructions of God’s Word.  “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23).  Of course, one must have instruction from God's Word in what those good works are.  (Link to Law and Grace.)

Regeneration may occur from any moment after conception to just prior to death.  It may be a sudden, intense experience or a more subtle quiet event.  It may occur before consciousness early in one’s life, even before birth.  Children, born and raised to Christian parents, may never have a born again experience but their speech and behavior gives clear evidence that they “trust and obey” the Savior and His Word.  That does not mean that such a person will not have a profound sense of sin and the necessity of repentance.  Indeed, this is that evidence of regeneration.

This variation in timing and differences in experience are not often taught or preached.  Thus, Christians often get confused whether they themselves are saved or others are saved.  But, dear brothers and sisters, the Bible and practical experience answer this dilemma.  The evidence of salvation is not based upon an experience of change, but evidence of salvation.  (See Assurance of Salvation: Simply Considered.)

One evidence is specific knowledge.  “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).  The second is works.  “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  The answer does not lie in an experience at a moment of time or even “feeling saved,” but in speech with specific content and the works (fruit) of one’s life. 

 

Addendum to Regeneration

The following quote is from The New International Commentary on the New Testament by John Murray.  While its subject is not identified as regeneration, Murray's discussion of the characteristics of "the flesh" and "the Spirit" actually describe the characteristics of the unregenerate ("the flesh") and the regenerate ("the Spirit").  "The flesh" and "the Spirit" are categories that are separated by a chasm (Luke 16:26) that is cannot be crossed by anything that man can do.  Only God can regenerate the soul from "flesh" to "Spirit."

The two expressions “after the flesh” (vss. 4, 5) and “in the flesh” (vss. 8, 9) have the same effect, with this difference that in the former the flesh is viewed as the determining pattern and in the latter as the conditioning sphere -- the persons concerned are conditioned by and patterned after the flesh. “The flesh” is human nature as corrupted, directed, and controlled by sin. “After the Spirit” (vss. 4-5) and “in the Spirit” (vs. 9) are also to the same effect, with a similar distinction as to the angle from which the relationship to the Holy Spirit is viewed. Those concerned are conditioned by and patterned after the Holy Spirit.

To “mind the things of the flesh” (vs. 5) is to have the things of the flesh as the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection, and purpose. And “the mind of the flesh” (vs. 6) is the dispositional complex, including not simply the activities of reason, but also those of feeling and will, patterned after and controlled by the flesh. In like manner, to mind “the things of the Spirit” (vs. 5) is to have the things of the Holy Spirit as the absorbing objects of thought, interest, affection, and purpose, and the “mind of the Spirit” is the dispositional complex, including the exercises of reason, feeling, and will, patterned after and controlled by the Holy Spirit.

The expressions, “after the flesh” (“in the flesh”), “mind the things of the flesh” (“the mind of the flesh”), “walk after the flesh” stand in causal relationship to one another and are also, most probably, to be understood as causally related in the order stated. The first defines the basic moral condition, the second, the inward frame of heart and mind resulting from that condition, and the third, the practice emanating from both, but more particularly from the first through the second. The same principles in the opposite direction hold with reference to “after the Spirit” (“in the Spirit”), to mind “the things of the Spirit” (“the mind of the Spirit”), and walk “after the Spirit.”

“The mind of the flesh is death” (vs. 6) does not mean that the mind of the flesh causes or leads to (physical) death. There is an equation, and the predicate specifies that in which the mind of the flesh consists. The principle of death is separation, and here the most accentuated expression of that principle is in view, namely, separation from God (cf. Isaiah 59:2). This separation is thought of in terms of our estrangement form God whereby we are dead in trespasses and sins (cf. Ephesians 2:1). The mind of the flesh is therefore that kind of death.

“The mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (vs. 6). The same kind of identification appears here. “Life” is contrasted with “death” and in its highest expression, which must be in view here, it means the knowledge and fellowship of God (cf. John 17:3; I John 1:3), the communion which is the apex of true religion. “Peace” can readily be seen to be the correlate of life. In this case, it is no doubt the subjective effect of peace with God (5:1) that is contemplated, the sense of being at one with God and the tranquility of heart and mind which the sense of reconciliation evokes (cf. Philippians 4:7). Peace is antithesis of the alienation and misery which sin creates.

 

Relative to personal salvation, Vincent Cheung writes: Therefore, when you assess the condition of your soul, the first question to ask yourself is not whether you have made a decision to reform your life, or whether you have repeated a prayer of salvation, but the question is whether God has performed this cleansing action in you, whether he has given birth to you in the spirit, and whether he has thus adopted you through Jesus Christ."  From Cheung's exposition, "Born Again" @ www.vincentcheung.com.

 

Summary Principles

1. Regeneration takes place in the heart, one designation of man's immaterial self.  It is a work of God the Holy Spirit in which God actively changes a person.  As a person does not assist with his own physical birth, neither does he have any part in regeneration which is entirely an act of God the Holy Spirit.  The person is passive in the process, but its effect initiates and perseveres in faith, repentance, and sanctification.

2. Regeneration begins sanctification which is in itself a life-long process.  Regeneration is a permanent change that can never be lost or reversed.  This change initiates the ordo salutis which ends in glorification (the fulfillment and final stage of The Kingdom of God).  A person who is truly saved (regenerate) can never become unregenerate, although he may "fall into grievous sins and for a time continue therein (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 17, Section 3see website link below).

3. Regeneration translates a person into the Church and the Kingdom of God.  Regeneration is the only means by which a person becomes a member of the Kingdom of God or a member of the universal (catholic) church.  Unfortunately, some "conversion" experiences mimic regeneration.

4. Regeneration allows infants and children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven upon their untimely death before their ability consciously to confess and repent or what some call "the age of accountability."  (See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 10, Section 3)

5. Regeneration, as a change in the soul, does not convey any knowledge.  It causes belief (faith) in the Scriptures as the Word of God and the message of salvation in God’s Son.  Thus, one evidence of a regenerated person is his love of the reading and study of the Word of God.

6. Since regeneration does not convey knowledge (see #5), all that we learn  is by our study and others’ teaching of the Bible (Ephesians 4:7-16).  Direct verbal teaching from God (revelation) is no longer given, as God's speaking directly to men and women has ended (Revelation 22:18-19).

7. Since regeneration is an act of the Holy Spirit, He will never give direction that is contrary to the Bible.  A perceived leading of the Spirit that does not agree with the Bible cannot be of the Holy Spirit, as He cannot contradict Himself.

8. Regeneration may occur early in life, or even before birth.  Thus, all Christians with solid evidence of a life of faith will not have had a conversion experience. However, all who are regenerate (true Christians) will have ample evidence of faith, repentance, and progress in sanctification. Officers must keep these differences in mind when interviewing candidates for acceptance into the church.

9. Regeneration of a person always results in good works (James 2:17) and progress in sanctification. 

10. Regeneration always precedes saving faith and repentance, although many persons may have many years, even decades, living the Christian life before God regenerates them (as the author himself experienced).  The "second-birth" that many experience and claim as such is actually the true experience of being "born-again" (regenerated).  They fail to understand the ordo salutis (see this website link above), and thus distort it.

Notes

1)  I believe that a person is bipartite.  Heart, soul, mind, will, and spirit are different views of the same immaterial substance of a person..  As colors are diffused through the various facets of a diamond, the immaterial dimensions of a person are described according to their function.  While, indeed, man is a unity of body (material) and soul (immaterial), it is important to recognize that he has a substance that is non-physical.

2)  Salvation, also, has a greater concept that is commonly realized. See The Wonderful Fullness of Salvation.

3) The Church, as being used here, is the “holy catholic (universal) church,” not a local body or denomination. 

Book References

***The best summary of all the aspects of regeneration:  Practical discourses on regeneration by Philip Dodderidge, University of Michigan Reprint Series, reprinted from the original, of 1855.  Available from Amazon.com.

On regeneration before birth and early in life, see Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Chapter 21 and Kuyper’s Principles of Sacred Theology, p. 389.

On regeneration not infusing knowledge, see Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, p. 580.  Also, note the absence of the mention of knowledge in the introduction to this section above.

One of the best summaries, yet, again does not contain all the above is Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, “Regeneration and Effectual Calling,” pp. 465-479.

 On regeneration of the heart and not the mind, see Henry Stob, Theological Reflections, pages 235-236.

Web references

See the impeccable John Calvin on law, grace, regeneration, and free will.  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom20.iii.xli.html

Webster’s 1828 definition of regeneration.

Again, there is no place that contains everything that I have said here.  The most comprehensive reference is found here.

 

 



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