In the last eNewsletter we began a study on Essentials and Distinctives--Christians Essentials, and Baptist Distinctives. In this series of articles we are focusing on two questions:
1. What is a Christian?
The answer to this question will focus on the essentials of biblical Christianity. What does it take to be a Christian? What are the experiences or beliefs which must be present if one is to be a real Christian?
2. What is a Baptist?
Here we will focus on the distinctives of our Baptist convictions. Baptists are not the only Christians in the world. We are a part of the larger family of Christians. But, as a part of that family, we do have some biblical convictions which distinguish us from other believers. Our distinctives are important, but they are not as important as the essentials.
This month we will begin with the essentials and address the first question, "What is a Christian?" (a true Christian, biblical Christian). The first essential ingredient of true Christianity is regeneration, the new birth.
A Christian is someone who has been born of God's Spirit. Do you know what that means? When Jimmy Carter became President of the USA in 1976 I remember my Political Science Professor from TAMU told about his colleagues from the North calling him on the phone to get help in understanding what the phrase, "born again," meant. Since then the phrase has been more commonly used in our public conversations and so people are much more familiar with the words, but, I am afraid, there is still a great deal of ignorance about the biblical meaning of the phrase.
The technical and biblical word for spiritual birth is regeneration. That word is found only twice in the New Testament. The first occurrence is in Matthew 19:28, where it refers to the coming renewal of the world at the end of the age. The only other time it is used is in Paul's letter to Titus, where it does specifically refer to spiritual birth. Although the word regeneration only appears these two times, the idea of regeneration is taught throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament.
In Titus 3:1-7, Paul exhorts Titus:
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. 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, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Paul begins his description of salvation with the words: "He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit..." Our experience of salvation begins with this work of God. In John 3:3-8 Jesus describes this sovereign work of the Spirit in this way:
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 said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" 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.' 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."
Jesus said we must be born again if we are to see the kingdom of God. But why is this necessary? Why do we need regeneration or a new birth? Why can't we see and understand spiritual truths on our own?
First, we need the new birth because of our sinful depravity. Every unregenerate person is desperately mired in sin. Paul said to Titus: "For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:3). In Ephesians 1:1-3 he describes the ravages of sin in our hearts in this way:
...who were dead in trespasses and sins, 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, 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.
This is who we are outside of Christ. We are "sons of disobedience" and "children of wrath." Only God can turn our hearts from darkness and depravity to light and life.
Second, we need the new birth because of our spiritual inability. Not only are we walking in sin, we are "dead in trespasses and sin." We are spiritually deaf and blind, unable to come to Christ, unable to please God. In ourselves we are without hope, but Paul continues:
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),... (Ephesians 3:4-5).
God must quicken us and make us alive. We need new life and new birth because in sin we are dead and in bondage.
Jesus warning that "Unless a man is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." There is no other alternative. There is no exception. In order to be a real Christian you must experience the Holy Spirit's work in your life, making you into a new person. You must be born again--spiritually. Without this, it does not matter whatever else you may have experienced or done. Doing good works cannot save you. Joining a church or being baptized will not make you a true Christian. Having warm feelings about God and the gospel, experiencing visions or dreams, going into the ministry to become a preacher--you can rest on none of these things to mark yourself out as a true believer in Christ. The important questions is: Have you been born of God's Spirit? Have you been regenerated?
Regeneration is the first work of salvation which a person experiences when he becomes a Christian, but what is it? What does it do to us and in us?
Paul described regeneration in Titus 3:5 as "washing" and "renewing." It negates the past, cleanses us from sin and breaks the power of unholiness in your life.
Have you ever refinished an old, tattered piece of furniture? Strip off the old paint; sand out the dings and scratches--you overcome the past. Regeneration does the same thing. The Spirit of God comes into a personŐs life and overthrows the powers of sin that had kept him enslaved for all of his life. It negates the past.
But it also reconstitutes for the future. In regeneration, the Spirit of God recreates us in righteousness. Our nature is changed and we are given a real desire for holiness. It is not enough to strip off the old paint; you must put on the new. Regeneration is the act of God's Spirit whereby new life is given to a person. It is a supernatural change that is worked by God.
This is the wonder of real Christianity! It is all about change! God changes people. He overcomes their past and recreates them for the future. He cleanses them from sin and gives them a new nature that is genuinely though not perfectly righteous. What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who has been changed by the power of God!
People are always interested in changing. The media have sensed this interest and seek to use it to their advantage. Thousands of products offer to change your life. Drive this new car, where these new cloths, try this new hair style, take these new vitamins. But these superficial changes can never address our real need. Our real need is for inward washing and renewing.
Millions of people are dying to change, but deep down believe that it is impossible. The chains of their past seem too heavy; their bondage too secure. The prospect of their future looks too bleak and hopeless. "O, I've tried to change, but nothing ever works." "I can't change." The good news that the Bible teaches is simply this: God changes people!
Has God changed you? Has His Spirit come into your life and caused you to start loving Jesus and start hating your sin? Do you desire God in ways you never did before?
Have you cried to God to change you? You have probably asked Him to give you lots of things and to do lots of things for you--that is the way most people pray. Really, all they are doing is asking God to change for them. But, have you ever asked God to change you?
This is your greatest need. Jesus said, "Unless a man is born again--unless He is changed--he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." You cannot be a Christian unless you have been born of God's Spirit.
Regeneration is the implantation of new life. There are always signs of life that accompany the new birth. We see this displayed in the natural actions of a newborn. A newborn cries instinctively. A spiritually born person prays; his new nature cries "Abba, Father." A new born sucks instinctively. A regenerate person hungers for spiritual food--milk and meat of the Word. A newborn moves, turning its head, wiggling arms and legs. A spiritually reborn person also begins to make spiritual movements, sorting out priorities, exploring new relationships, attempting good works. A newborn rests. A regenerate person is able to rest in Christ; to trust God with His life; to know real inward peace through faith in the Lord.
There are things that always accompany regeneration. The little letter of 1 John spells this out very clearly. Everyone who is born of God:
Someone who is a true Christian will act like it. Why? Because he has been born of God's Spirit. He has been changed.
So the important question you must ask is: "Have you been born of God's Spirit?"
Not, "Have you joined a church?"
Not "Have you made a profession of faith?"
Not "Have you been baptized?"
Have you been born of God?
If not, then do not be deceived, you are not a Christian. And your greatest need at this moment is for God to convince you of your true condition and your genuine need. Look to Him for mercy today. He sent His Son to die for sinners like you and me. He will save you. Cry out to Him today from you heart.
Christian brother and sister: Do you see how you became what you are? It is all because of God. His Spirit gave you new life. He is the one who has rescued us from sin and hell. All praise and honor and glory belong to Him.