Regeneration and Conversion
Infants do not induce, or cooperate in, their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” prompt the quickening operation of God’s Spirit within them (see Eph. 2:1–10). Spiritual vivification is a free, and to man mysterious, exercise of divine power (John 3:8), not explicable in terms of the combination or cultivation of existing human resources (John 3:6), not caused or i nduced by any human efforts (John 1:12–13) or merits (Titus 3:3–7), and not, therefore, to be equated with, or attributed to, any of the experiences, decisions, and acts to which it gives rise and by which it may be known to have taken place.- J.I. Packer
This week I have had two people ask me for more clarity on what I preached on Sunday. Since I am a sinful and flawed man I always assume that if there is a lack of clarity in what I preach it is my fault. I also assume that for every one person who tells me that I did not make myself clear enough there are many others who are thinking the same thing. So, here goes...
The text for Sunday's message was John 3:1-15 where Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about the new birth. The focus of the message therefore was on the doctrine of the new birth or regeneration.
Regeneration is the sovereign and mysterious work of God. If the new birth is the result of something we do or a commitment we make then Jesus has given us a truly confusing metaphor and he is not the teacher we assumed him to be. This, of course is not an option. In the new birth, God is the actor and we are the responders. Those who are children of God by virtue of faith in Christ "were born not of blood, nor of the will will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). Unfortunately however there has been much teaching about the new birth which clouds the clarity of John 1 and 3. This teaching makes man the actors in the new birth and God the responder. But this simply cannot be.
Regeneration is the sovereign and merciful act of God to breathe life into a dead sinner. Dead men do not raise themselves. The blind do not restore their own sight. Prior to the new birth we are dead Lazarus rotting in the grave until that miraculous moment when Jesus cries "come forth!" We do not control or command this act of God's sovereign grace. Jesus drives this home by not only referring to the experience as being "born again" or "born from above" but by the word play in verses 7 and 8:
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born uagain.’ The wind5 blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Here Jesus uses the word pneuma which can be translated as "wind" or "spirit." He is comparing the mystery of the Spirit's work in regeneration with the mystery of the wind. We can no more command and control the Spirit's work in regeneration as we can the wind. Further, in regeneration, the Spirit is not responding to something we do or a commitment we make any more than the wind responds to our will. For the one wanting to be told what to do in order to get born again, Jesus offers no answers. Quite the opposite. "The wind blows where it wishes...So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
So where does this leave us? Is deliberately placing our faith in Jesus irrelevant? Do we not have to believe? Are we always entirely passive? Is this not fatalism to some degree? These are legitimate questions based upon what I have written thus far.
This is where conversion comes in.
Conversion is our act of repentance from sin and faith in Christ as our only Savior. But how do hardened sinners who are dead in trespasses come to grieve over sin and delight in Jesus? The only hope the sinner has is through the new birth which is entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration, therefore, must come before conversion. The new birth is what produces conversion. We can state it like this: Regeneration (the new birth) is the root while conversion (repentance from sin and faith in Jesus) is the fruit. By God's grace, the second will surely follow the first.
So without a doubt, faith in Jesus is absolutely necessary for salvation. We are saved by grace through faith. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." But how do we come to the place where we willingly and joyfully place our faith in Jesus? Outside of Christ, our hearts are darkened and we are dead in our sins. We cannot understand the things of the Spirit for they are spiritually discerned. So what makes the difference between the one who believes in Jesus and the one who rejects Him? Is it that believers are wiser or more moral? Certainly not. The difference is the sovereign grace of God in the new birth.
If our faith and repentance produce the new birth then we must conclude that regeneration is at least a cooperative effort between God and man. What is more, we must conclude that unregenerate sinners, dead in their trespasses are not able to repent and trust in Jesus before they are brought to new life.
"I say that man, before he is renewed into the new creation of the Spirit's kingdom, does and endeavours nothing to prepare himself for that new creation and kingdom, and when he is re-created has does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone works both blessings in us, regenerating us, and preserving us when regenerate, without ourselves..."
- Martin Luther from Bondage of the Will, pg. 268
"Faith in the living God and his Son Jesus Christ is always the result of the new birth, and can never exist except in the regenerate. Whoever has faith is a saved man."
- Charles Spurgeon
"Regeneration is monergistic: that is, entirely the work of God the Holy Spirit. It raises the elect among the spiritually dead to new life in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10). Regeneration is a transition from spiritual death to spiritual life, and conscious, intentional, active faith in Christ is its immediate fruit, not its immediate cause. Regeneration is the work of what Augustine called “prevenient” grace, the grace that precedes our outgoings of heart toward God."
- J.I. Packer
"Why do some people repent and respond by faith in Christ to the divine summons to faith while others do not? Concerning those who believe in Christ’s name John immediately says in John 1:13: “[These are they] who have been begotten [egennēthēsan], not by blood, nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of a husband, but by God.” By this particular reference to God’s “begetting” activity John refers to regeneration, and clearly suggests by his statement that, while faith is the instrumental precondition to justification and adoption, regeneration is the necessary precondition and efficient cause of faith in Jesus Christ. In short, regeneration causally precedes faith."
- Robert Reymond
A Few Relevant Scriptures:
1. "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:1-5)
- Regeneration ("made us alive") happens before any faith response on our part.
2. "And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live...Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD." (Ezekiel 37:14)
- Notice that God says through the prophet that he will make his people alive and THEN we will know that he is the Lord.
3. "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me [i.e. believe in me] unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:63-65)
4. "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God." (1 John 5:1)
- Those who believe do so because they have been born of God (regeneration).
Please take time to check out the following excellent articles:
Regeneration Precedes Faith by R.C. Sproul
The New Genesis by R.C. Sproul
Regeneration by J.I. Packer
Regeneration by Wayne Grudem
Regeneration by Robert Reymond
Two Views of Regeneration by John Hendryx
Grace Alone: An Evangelical Problem? by Kim Riddlebarger
I have corrected a small typo in the final sentence of my post just prior to the Martin Luther quote. Amazing how one little word like "not" makes all the theological difference in the world!