by Mike Ratliff
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)
God uses the attacks on His truth to train us to become better theologians, those who study God and His truth and ways. These attacks make us think and search the Scriptures and seek the help from the Holy Spirit and other theologians in order to answer these determined to either silence the proclamation of God’s Truth as the Truth or to lead others into the darkness that has blinded them. As we defend the truth, we draw closer to God and He trains us by giving us a deeper and more thorough understanding of His Truth. The doctrine of regeneration is continually under attack because of it makes very clear some truths about man that is offensive to many. These truths are that regeneration must come first in order for a person to be able to believe the Gospel. This is because everyone is born spiritually dead, totally unable to see and believe the truth (John 3:3). In order for anyone to believe and know the truth of God, to seek the Kingdom of God, they must be born again.
Regeneration is the act of God alone, in which He renews the human heart, making it alive when it was dead. In regeneration, God acts at the origin and deepest point of the human person. This means that there is no preparation, no preceding disposition in a sinner that requests or contributes to the new life given by God.
Regeneration is necessary because all descendants of Adam and Eve have inherited their sin and are morally unable to do what is good. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that people are by nature dead in trespasses and sins. In this state, they are without God and without hope in the world. Not in response to their merit, but freely and in love, God speaks the word that raises the dead. 1
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)
8 τη γαρ χάριτί εστε σεσωσμένοι διά της πίστεως και τούτο ουκ εξ υμών θεού το δώρον 9 ουκ εξ έργων ίνα μη τις καυχήσηται (Ephesians 2:8-9 AB)
8 For by favor you are being preserved through the belief; and this gift of God is not of you; 9 not of works, lest any should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 AB)
The word χάριτί, translated as “by grace” in the ESV or “by favor” in the AB, is a kindness granted or desired, a benefit. It is a favor done without expectation of return. In this context, Paul is describing that all Christians are σεσωσμένοι, being preserved, or being saved χάριτί, by God’s grace. Σεσωσμένοι in v8 is a perfect passive participle. This grammar structure stresses the state brought about by the finished results of the action. This means that this salvation took place at some point in the past and is continuing in the present, being accomplished by Jesus Christ Himself. This salvation takes place through, διά, the faith or belief, της πίστεως. πίστεως means “being persuaded, faith, belief. In general it implies such a knowledge of, assent to, and confidence in certain divine truths, especially those of the gospel, as produces good works (Matt. 8:10; 15:28; Acts 3:16; Rom. 1:17; 3:22, 25, 28; Gal. 5:6; Heb. 11:1ff).” Think of Paul’s statement in Romans 4:3, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This is that same belief. Those who are truly saved are χάριτί σεσωσμένοι διά της πίστεως, for there is no other way.
Being religious does not do it. Being good in people’s eyes does not do it. Being the one who simply loves other people does not do it. No, all of that is simply works. Only those who believe God through faith by His grace are saved. We see this clearly in the last part of v8 and the first part of v9, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.” How much more clear can it be? This act of God’s grace is a gift, δώρον. This means that God saving us and the faith by which we believe is all wrapped up in this δώρον. Paul makes sure to exclude the possibility of anyone claiming to have earned this δώρον by saying ουκ εξ έργων, not of works. Έργων refers to “work, performance, the result or object of employment, making or working…” In other words, our salvation is totally the result of God’s gracious gift to those He saves. It is all His work and none of ours. Why? It is to prevent anyone from being able to boast or take credit for his or her salvation, ίνα μη τις καυχήσηται. Καυχήσηται speaks of the act of glorying in some action or state. In other words, our salvation is to God’s glory not ours.
So, what has this to with Regeneration and our new birth?
The classic verses of John 3 that use the language of being “born again” or being “born from above” give the outlines of regeneration their sharpest edge. Jesus says that unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven. Without the grace of God, sinners cannot find the door, let alone force their way in. Elsewhere Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing”; and in speaking about salvation, “Without God, nothing is possible.
Jesus showed surprise that Nicodemus was puzzled by the demand to be born again. Nicodemus should have understood from the Old Testament that he was a sinner, and in need of new life; and he must have known the prophets, who promised that God would remove their hearts of stone and replace them with hearts ready to do God’s will. God would raise the dead, give sight to the blind, and preach the good news to those who could not save themselves.
Regeneration is the gift of God’s grace. It is the immediate, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit wrought in us. Its effect is to quicken us to spiritual life from spiritual death. It changes the disposition of our souls, inclining our hearts to God. The fruit of regeneration is faith. Regeneration precedes faith.2
God is sovereign in all things and that includes our salvation. Paul makes it clear that our salvation is by God’s grace through faith and Jesus tells us that no one can be saved unless they are Born Again or regenerated. What is our part? Our part is to preach the Gospel, the whole Gospel to all who will hear relying on the Holy Spirit to do His miraculous work in the hearts of those God calls to Himself (John 6:44). This silly stuff going on right now that attempts to define this miracle of salvation in mystical terms or as something involving good works or making the world a better place are extra-biblical. They are not biblical and are, therefore, not of God and not what the Church needs to be about.
Soli Deo Gloria!
1From The Reformation Study Bible theological note “Regeneration: The New Birth,” page 1514.
2Ibid, page 1514.