Regeneration: The Internal Call
We live in a culture in Christendom that does not often appreciate the role of mindful Christianity. The idea that we do not need to put to mind what we perceive spiritually is dangerous and its implication poses a great challenge to the church in Africa. Sinclair Ferguson says, "We ultimately benefit from experiences only when we trace the great doctrinal principles which they illustrate. As we find our minds expanded by the grace of God, our hearts should be correspondingly enlarged with love to him for all that he has done for us in Christ. This leads to a richer experience of his love for us."
Thus, we study doctrine to enrich our minds with Christ, and this gives significance to our experience. Paul implores Timothy to continue in what he has learned, namely, God's word.
2 Timothy 3:14-17 (ESV)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. ** ** All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Today we will study some aspects of salvation. We do believe that the Christian's salvation is pegged on nothing but the sovereign plan of God. We must then study the power of God unto salvation. This is the power that brings the dead to life and causes the blind to see. We call this the doctrine of regeneration. What does regeneration mean? Why is regeneration necessary? Who is the author of regeneration? And finally, what are the results of regeneration?
This word can be used similarly with words like Born again, New Birth, New creation.
The Greek term for 'regeneration' (Palingenesia) appears only twice in the New Testament. First, in Matthew 19:28,"…truly I say to you, in the new world…" In this context, it is used to mean the New Creation.
The second occurrence of "regeneration" in the New Testament comes in Titus 3:5, "He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit."
Here Paul uses the term to speak about man's salvation from sin and indicates that regeneration is characterized by both washing and renewal.
Bruce Milne states, "Regeneration marks the moment and the means of our coming into union with Christ. It is an instantaneous change from spiritual death to spiritual life, a spiritual resurrection (Eph 2:1, 5), the once-for-all event at the beginning of the Christian life, parallel to [i.e., comparable with] physical birth. It differs from conversion, with which it is closely associated, in emphasizing God's action in giving new life; conversion is the human act of turning from sin to righteousness which accompanies regeneration. Through regeneration, the believer receives a new spiritual nature which will express itself in new concerns and interests. The regenerate are primarily concerned with 'the things of God', his Word, his people, his service, his glory, above all God himself. They will also experience new powers to resist sin and obey and serve God."
Wayne Grudem defines regeneration as follows, "Regeneration is a secret of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us." This is a great change. This great change is only possible by the Spirit. (John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18) It is a life-changing union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11; Col 2:12-15)
It is the Holy Spirit who effects this change within the heart of man. He effects it because He is the source of it. He brings it about by the mode of regeneration.
Why is Regeneration Necessary?
The natural man is spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1). He is by nature a spiritual corpse, entirely unresponsive to the spiritual truth proclaimed in the external call of the gospel. For this reason, the natural man will always reject the gospel, for the things of the Spirit of God "are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). A few things to note about the man that I deem very useful if we are to understand this:
John 3:6 "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit" This simply means that the human nature is powerless to produce spiritual life and reality. Only a work of the Spirit can bring us to the kingdom of God.
He is blind in his spirit, and "cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). The word 'see' must mean to recognize, appreciate, or to understand the significance of the kingdom.
Nicodemus asked Jesus, "How can these things be?" He could neither see the kingdom nor naturally understand salvation (2 Cor. 4:4; Romans 1:21-22; Eph. 4:17-18; John 9:39).
He is deaf. His ears are uncircumcised (Jer. 6:10) and therefore he cannot perceive the wisdom, grace, and truth announced in the gospel of grace (Isa. 6:9-10; Matt. 13:15; John 8:43)
Jeremiah 17:9; The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. He is devoid of spiritual life, for the scripture says that his heart is a heart of stone (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), cold and unresponsive to the meaning and glory of divinely revealed truth.
Who is the author of Regeneration?
Many preachers and evangelists go astray here. They say, "If you want to be born again, you must repent and believe". But we cannot repent and believe unless we have first been born again! So, first of all, we need to be born again. How can we be born again? The answer is that it is a sovereign work of God. The Spirit, just like the wind (the Greek word for Spirit and wind is the same word), blows wherever he wills (John 3:8). It is God the Holy Spirit who gives life to a person and he gives life to whomsoever he chooses.
In the treatment of this portion of the thought, many scholars agree that many aspects of the application of redemption require believers to participate actively. For example, through repentance and faith are themselves sovereign gifts from God (Acts 11:18; Ephesians 2:8), we ourselves must turn from sin and trust in Christ. Though God grants us faith, he does not believe the gospel for us.
Similarly, the Christian's growth in holiness is a sovereign work of the spirit of God (Philippians 2:13; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:16-17, 22-33). Nevertheless, we are called to avail ourselves of the means by which the Spirit sanctifies us, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) and making every effort to supplement our faith with virtue (2 Peter 1:5-8).
The work of regeneration, however, is unlike these other aspects of the application of redemption. In regeneration, man is entirely passive.
The imagery used in the scriptures is that of being born again:
(John 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:3,23; 1 John 3:9). Physically, a child makes absolutely no contribution to his conception or his birth. He is nonexistent and thus is entirely dependent on his parents to be brought into being. This is the analogy used by Christ to explain that dead and depraved sinners cannot contribute to their rebirth unto spiritual life but are entirely dependent on the sovereign will of God for regeneration.
Nicodemus took this class, and he was not getting it:
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews who was described as "the teacher of Israel" (John 3:1, 10). He was a member of the strictest and most devout sect of Judaism, he sat on the governing body of the Sanhedrin, and as the teacher of Israel, he occupied a unique place of religious devotion yet Jesus declared to him, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). "Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
Regeneration is scripturally affirmed as being the work of God the Father:
Read John 1:13. Regeneration is God's will (James 1:18). Man was dead in his trespasses (Eph 2:4-5; Col 2:13). According to the Father's great mercy, "he has caused us to be born again into a living hope" (1 Pet. 1:3.See also Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:9).
This is not merely a New Testament affair. It was promised in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 six times God says "I will" concerning man's salvation. Ezekiel 37:1-11 illustrates God's own sovereignty and salvation of the Jews before Christ's return. "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live" (Ezekiel 37:12, 14).
Scripture also indicates that the Holy Spirit participates in this work:
Jesus explains to Nicodemus that the child of God is "born of the Spirit" (John 3:5, 6, 8). Later in the book of John, He says "it is the Spirit who gives life" (John 6:63). This is what Paul preached and taught (2 Cor. 3:6; Rom 8:2). The Spirit does this by "the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).
While the Father is the ultimate agent of regeneration, summoning us out of death and into life, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of regeneration, who carries out the will of the Father by giving us spiritual life.
The results of Regeneration
At regeneration, light has finally come, and the heart is warmed to the call of God. The stony heart is made flesh and the spiritual eyes now see. The Spirit then continues the work of sanctification. How therefore should we live henceforth? The following are some of the things that we see that help us affirm that indeed the work of God namely regeneration has occurred in the heart of a believer:
John says "Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him" (1 John 2:29). The life of the believer is that of increasing holiness (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:10; 4:24).
"No one born of God makes a practice sinning, for God's seed abides in Him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). The seed keeps growing (similar language is used in 1 Peter 1:23). The new has indeed come (2 Cor. 5:17). This does not mean that the child of God has ceased entirely from sin at the moment of regeneration, for the presence of sin continues to dwell in us (Rom. 7:14-25) and thus must constantly be put to death (Roman 8:12-13). John MacArthur says, "These texts do not speak of perfection but of direction."
John helps us again to understand that, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith". The world is pestered with evil (1 John 2:15-17) which is Satan's power.
The believer grows in overcoming the traps set out to bring him down. These traps seek to shipwreck his faith (1 Tim. 1:19, James 2:17) but this will not have victory since the child of God will withstand the pressures and temptations of this "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). He overcomes through a persevering faith that walks in obedience to the Lord. He will never finally yield to evil (1 John 5:18). There is therefore no fear.
To the regenerate, the commands of God are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). The rich young ruler found it burdensome to sell everything, his wealth and possessions and follow Christ (Luke 18:18-30). So do the hypocrites. You cannot fake this miracle, soon your true nature will be displayed openly. You will find the task burdensome. The believer delights in the law of the Lord (Psalms 119:97; 40:8). Obedience requires a new heart, a new nature recreated in the likeness of God Eph. 4:24, "and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."
Those who are truly born again manifest an evident love for the church, for the child of God loves the children of God and cares and loves even those who are not deserving. Some scriptures that I find useful here (1 John 4:7, 8, 16; 1 John 5:1).
1 John 3:16-18
"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. ** ** But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? ** ** Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
Ferguson, S. B. (1981). The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. East Pretoria: Banner of Truth.
Grudem, W. (2015). Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Norton Street, Nottingham NG7 3HR, England: InterVarsity Press.
John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Wheaton: Illinois: Crossway.
1 John 3: 1-21, Titus 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 5:17, Ephesians 2:1, 5
2 Mk Bussey Notes.
3 John Murray, "Redemption Accomplished and Applied" (The Banner of Truth, 1961 Earliest edition Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955)
4 This is also called the Gospel call, or the general call. It is the verbal proclamation of the gospel by which all sinners are called to turn from their sin and trust in Christ for salvation (Matt. 22:14). (2017, p. 571) The internal call is given only to the elect and always brings the sinner to salvation.
5 In Christ's time, this blindness was illustrated by the response men made to his great parables of the kingdom of God. Many who physically heard did not 'hear' the voice of Christ as he called them into his kingdom. (Matthew 13:13-15.
6 Mk Bussey Notes
Danson Ottawa is passionate about reformed theology and church discipleship. He is a student at Africa International University pursuing a Master of Arts Degree in Biblical Studies.