When Jimmy Carter became President of the United States in 1976 I remember my Political Science professor at Texas A&M University talking about the confusion which his colleagues from the North were experiencing. Several of them called him on the phone to get help in understanding what the phrase, "born again," meant.
From the outset of his campaign Carter made it very clear that he was not ashamed to be known as a "born-again Christian." At that time this was a new thought to a lot of people in our land because they had not weighed or considered Christianity in terms of the idea of a new birth. Reporters and political analysts wanted to know what the language meant and what Mr. Carter was actually saying.
Since then the phrase has come into common usage in our public conversations and people are much more familiar with the words. It is frequently used of basketball and football teams who suddenly start winning again after a series of losses. When the phrase appears in a sports headline in reference to your favorite team, you can be assured that things must be moving in the right direction.
The language of "born again" and "rebirth" has obviously become more common in our world today. Nevertheless, there is little reason to hope that the spiritual significance of these phrases is any better now than it was twenty years ago. There remains a great deal of ignorance about the biblical meaning of the new birth.
The technical and biblical word for spiritual birth is regeneration. The word itself is found only twice in the New Testament, but the idea which it communicates is found throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. The first occurrence is in Matt. 19:28, where it refers to the coming renewal of the world at the end of the age when Jesus will appear. The only other time it is used is in Paul's letter to Titus, where it does specifically refer to spiritual birth. There, the apostle writes,
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. (Titus 3:1-7, NKJV).
An Initiatory Work
Salvation includes a complex of ideas. When the Bible speaks of being saved it is not referring to only one aspect of God's work in making a Christian, but rather to a full conglomerate of realities that is included in that work. Justification, sanctification, glorification, forgiveness, regeneration, as well as repenting and believing and being converted are all spiritual realities which fit under the heading of "salvation." The very first reality which a person experiences when he becomes a Christian is the work of regeneration. Thus Paul writes, "He saved us, through the washing of regeneration." The new birth, or regeneration, is the initiatory event that ushers a person into the experience of salvation.
This is illustrated quite graphically in Jesus' analogy of birth which is recorded in John 3. Jesus is approached by Nicodemus, a religious leader, who wanted to ask a question. Before he could get the question out of his mouth Jesus went to the heart of the matter and said to him, "You must be born again. You must be born of the Spirit." Jesus uses the analogy of physical birth, saying, "What must happen to you spiritually, Nicodemus, is tantamount to what happened to you physically when you came into this world. You must be born spiritually if you're going to enter into the kingdom of God." In an analogous way, spiritual birth is that initiatory experience that brings an individual into a state of salvation. It is that which enables him, for the first time, to see Christ with faith, to repent of sin and to begin trusting and following the Lord.
Paul uses a different, but equally graphic, analogy of "quickening," or making alive in Ephesians 2. He reminds his readers that they were once dead in trespasses and sins and were apart from God. When they did not know God, He "quickened" them and made them spiritually alive. Such "quickening" (regeneration) is the initial experience which comes to a person and ushers him into the whole realm of salvation.
Why is this type of initiatory experience necessary? Why must the very first thing that happens to a person be new birth? Why not repentance? Why not faith? Why not justification? Why not conversion? Why not glorification and all the other things which are also a part of salvation? Why must regeneration be first?
Regeneration must be the very first work in our salvation because of mankind's sinful depravity. When sin came into the world it left the human race morally and spiritually devastated. Consider the way that Paul describes our condition by nature in Titus 3:3. He lists seven vices which describe the condition of every unregenerate person: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. This description is a summary overview of the true condition and attitude of every unregenerate person.
This kind of language offends some people and they would argue that it does not apply to them. If that's your attitude, and you feel you're not any of these things, nor have you ever been any of these things, then it is most likely true that you still are these things (especially "deceived"), because this is the condition of everyone by nature.
Paul is writing to regenerate people who have been born of God's Spirit and reminding them of what they were before salvation came to them through the initiatory working of the Spirit in regenerating them. This is the way they once were. It remains an apt description of all who are yet unconverted.
Not only has sin left mankind morally polluted, it has also left everyone without spiritual ability. The natural man is spiritually blind, deaf and, most dramatically, dead. Such a person, by his own strength, is unable to please God or come to Christ for salvation.
Jesus said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). Paul wrote that no one by nature can please God or keep His law (Rom. 8:7-8). There is no spiritual ability in people because of sin. Consequently, if a spiritually depraved, spiritually disabled individual is to become a believer and a repenter (a follower of Jesus Christ), something must happen to him. That something is regeneration. There must be new birth, quickening, a work of God's Spirit which grants life and spiritual power, spiritual ability to see, to hear, to respond. This is the work of regeneration.
Thus Jesus' warning that "Unless a man is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" makes perfect sense. There is no other option or alternative. There is no exception. There is no "Plan B." No matter whatever else you may have experienced, if the Holy Spirit has not come into your life to make you a new person, if you have not been born again spiritually, then you are not a Christian. Regardless of whatever else you may have experienced, 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.
A man may have experienced great visions and dreams. He may have known exalted feelings in his religious life. He may be greatly gifted and accomplished many good, religious works. He may have been baptized, commissioned, and ordained. Nevertheless, Jesus' admonition stands undaunted: Unless one has been born of God's Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
"Have you been born of God's Spirit?" This is the question which we must put to people. Not, "Have you walked an aisle?" Not, "Have you been baptized?" Not, "Have you done religious works?" Rather, "Has the Spirit of God ever come into your life so that He has changed you and worked in you, giving you new life?" Whatever words we may use, this is the question. "Have you been regenerated?"
A Purifying and Renovating Work
Regeneration is also a work of purification and renovation. Paul says that God, according to His mercy, saved us through the "washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit." Regeneration works in two directions: it negates the past and reconstitutes for the future. In Christ, old things have passed away" and "all things have become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Anyone who has ever refinished an old, tattered piece of furniture which has been painted a dozen times knows that the first step involves stripping off the old paint, sanding out the dings and scratches, and trying to do all you can to overcome the past. Regeneration does the same thing. The Spirit of God comes into a person's life and overthrows the powers of sin that have kept him enslaved for all of his life. The ultimate perfection of this will be experienced when the believer is ushered into heaven, but the process is begun on earth. In this way regeneration negates the past.
But it also reconstitutes for the future. In regeneration, the Spirit of God recreates in righteousness. The sinner's nature is changed and he is given a real desire for holiness. This new desire and new life is not perfect--but it is genuine. It is not enough to strip off the old paint and sand out the dings, restoration also requires putting on a new finish. Regeneration is the act of God's Spirit whereby new life is given to a person. The regenerate person is both able and willing to live a life of repentance and faith. He has been supernaturally changed.
This is the wonder of biblical Christianity! It is all about change! Our culture is always abuzz with talk about change. Have you ever noticed the commercials you watch or hear on the radio, the ads in the papers? All kinds of products are hawked with enticements that they will change your looks, change your relationships, change your attitudes, change your health, etc.
Multitudes of people in the world today are dying to change. This is why the offer of an improved life is such a successful marketing strategy. As a casual stroll through any popular bookstore clearly demonstrates, self-improvement sells. Sadly, however, it promises far more than it can deliver. Better hair, newer cars, whiter teeth, greener grass, etc.--these at best can add an attractive veneer to a fractured life. Sin has separated people from God and therefore has left us fundamentally broken and flawed.
The good news which the Bible teaches is simply this: God changes people! He renews from within. This is the work of regeneration which ushers people into a whole new life. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God transforms enemies into His children. This is the message of hope which the church has for the world.
A Lasting, Life-Changing Work
Regeneration is the implantation of new life. Paul tells Titus to instruct those he is pastoring to incorporate certain characteristics and virtues into their lives. Christians must be submissive to rulers and authorities, ready to do every good work, speak evil of no one, peaceable, gentle and humble to all. But is this really possible? Yes! Because, Paul says, though believers once used to be people filled with vice, the merciful salvation of God has come to them and by His Spirit they have been regenerated. Regeneration always results in a new way of living.
When a healthy baby is born into the world, he or she exhibits certain natural tendencies and characteristics. Where these are missing, something is terribly wrong. Similarly, there are signs of life which are exhibited by those who have been spiritually born again. These signs of spiritual life reflect the characteristics of physical life which appear naturally in newborn babies. What happens when a new baby comes into the world?
A newborn cries instinctively. There is a natural ingredient or ability within the creature that is given by God that when all things are going well a new baby will cry. When this does not happen the parents worry because they know that something is not quite right. When a person is born of God's Spirit there will be a spiritual cry, a prayer to God--not as a matter of formality. Rather, prayer for the new Christian will be an inevitability. When a person is born of God's Spirit, he will look to God. This is instinctive. Paul says that we are given the Spirit by which we cry out to God, "Abba, Father," in the most intimate personal terms, calling upon Him as the one who now has adopted us into His family.
A newborn baby also eats instinctively. So it is with those who are born of God's Spirit. There is in the new Christian a hunger for spiritual food--the milk and meat of the Word. There is a desire to be nurtured by the Word of God. The Bible is no longer a boring and closed book. Rather, for those who are born of God's Spirit it becomes the source of spiritual nourishment. They cannot do without it.
This makes suspect those people who say they are Christians but who do not read the Word of God and do not want to hear the Word of God preached or taught. Such a person has no reason to think that he is a Christian. When a person is born of God's Spirit there will be created within a hunger for the Word.
Not only does a newborn baby cry and eat, he also moves, turning his head, and wiggling arms and legs. A spiritually reborn person also begins to make spiritual movements by sorting out new priorities: "What does this mean now that I belong to God?" "What does this mean now that He has taken me and brought me into His family and changed me?" "What about my old habits?" "What about my old relationships?" "What about how I've used my time and ordered my life?"
All of these types of movements will take place. They are not all instantaneous nor will they all occur at the same time. But there will be spiritual movement in the life of one who has been born of God's Spirit. There will be an effort to live for God, to do good works, and to serve the Lord in some way.
A newborn rests. This is true of a person who has been born of God's Spirit as well. A regenerate person is able to rest in Jesus Christ; to trust God with His life; to experience that real inward peace that comes only through faith in the Lord.
Where regeneration has taken place, there are always things that go with it--signs of life. The little letter of 1 John elaborates this point very clearly. Take 20 minutes to read this letter and you will find that it teaches that everyone who is born of God, does righteous things (2:29), has been delivered from the power of sin (3:9), knows and loves God and loves those who have been born of God (4:7), believes that Jesus is the Christ (5:1), overcomes the world by faith in Christ (5:4) and exercises self-control and guards himself (5:18).
What John is saying in his letter (and what the Bible elsewhere teaches us) is that whenever a person is born of God's Spirit and becomes a true Christian he will act like it. Not perfectly. Not always consistently. But there will be a change. Why? Because he has been born of God's Spirit.
Remember Jesus' parable about the farmer who went out and sowed the seed on four different kinds of soil. Some fell along the path, some fell on thorny ground and some fell on rocky ground. None of the seed sown in these places produced fruit. Some of it sprang up for a little while but it was choked out and died because it was not real. But the seed that fell on the good ground all came up and produced fruit. Some of it produced a hundred-fold, some only sixty-fold and some only thirty-fold, but all of it produced fruit because it all fell on good soil. In the same way, everyone who is born of God's Spirit will bear fruit. Where there is no fruit, there is no spiritual birth.
This is the way that God makes Christians. In His mercy and grace He saves sinners--by the washing of regeneration. All praise and honor and glory belong to Him. Christians should be the most thankful, humble, praising people in all the world. God in His mercy has come to us who once were dead in trespasses and sin and has made us alive in His Son. We are trusting Christ today because His Spirit has enabled us to do so. We are repenting today because His Spirit has granted to us that grace of repentance. We are following the Lord Jesus today--we've persevered thus far--because the Spirit has been given to us to look to Christ and to follow after Him all of these years. The praise goes to God. May the Lord help us to see that of the essence of biblical Christianity is this wonderful, amazing, life-changing work of His Spirit called regeneration.