Salvation Term: Regeneration

Nick Carraway is the narrator in the novel “The Great Gatsby.” He comes to the conclusion that the “last and greatest of all human dreams” is “the dream of starting all over again” (D. Bruce Lockerbie, “A Call for Christian Humanism”, BIBLITHECA SACRA, Aug/Sept, 1986, 195). The idea of being able to have a fresh beginning and start all over again is one most of us have had. If one could just somehow go back and wipe their slate clean and be born again, what a difference it could make in our lives.

A Jewish Ruler came to Jesus by night and asked, “‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:2,3). He was interested in how this could be possible? In fact, he suggested that it might be impossible. In verse four “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?’”

Definition of Regeneration

This concept of a spiritual renewal is found even in the Old Testament. Jeremiah prophecies of a new covenant with the law being written in a new heart (Jer. 24:7; 31:1f). Other passages allude to an individual renewal. After his sin with Bathsheba, David prayed to God, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

In the New Testament this idea is expressed in the term “regeneration.” This noun is found only twice: Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:5. It is translated from the Greek word palingenesia. It means “new birth (palin, again, genesis, birth), is used of spiritual regeneration, Tit. 3:5, involving the communication of a new life…the new birth and regeneration do not represent successive stages in spiritual experience, they refer to the same event but view it in different aspects. The new birth stresses the communication of the spiritual life in contrast to antecedent spiritual death; regeneration stresses the inception of a new state of things in contrast with the old” (Vine 939). Being born again and regeneration are by definition identical. They denote the cessation of the old way of life and the beginning of a new one.

Keep in mind regeneration is not merely a reformation or a even restoration. It is not putting a new top and paint job on a old convertible when the engine is shot. It is not a spiritual tune up or make over. Regeneration requires a new heart or a new person. Furthermore, regeneration is not just becoming religious. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and very religious. Yet he needed to be born again.

Need for Regeneration

All men have sinned (Rom. 3:23). Sin separates man from God (Is 59:1,2). The human heart or soul becomes corrupted by sin (Rom. 8:7,8) Death both spiritually and physically came into this world by sin. Those who sin will die (Rom. 6:23, Ezek. 18:20) unless they are born again. All men need regeneration.

On a radio program a contestant introduced himself to the game show host by announcing proudly, “I am a born-again Christian.” The host quick replied, “I didn’t know there were any other kind!” If you are a Christian you have been born again. If you experience regeneration you are a Christian. There is no such thing a Christian who is yet to experience regeneration. Regeneration is the process needed before one can become a Christian.

Source of Regeneration

Where is the power source behind this rebirth? “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12,13). It is faith in Christ who was sent by God. No one can start over as a son of God on their own merit or will. Nicodemus was religious, wealthy, believed in Jesus being sent by God, and he was an Israelite by birth and a child of Abraham by practice. Yet Jesus informed him of the need to be born again in order to enter into His kingdom.

Process of Regeneration

God and Christ have done their part to make it possible for man to be reborn. Does man have a part? Is regeneration conditional or unconditional? Some look to John 3:8 as proof that the Holy Spirit is the “wind” who actively works regeneration upon the hearts of men. Man is therefore passive.

Jesus told Nicodemus, “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” (John 3:5,6). Two things are important in regeneration: water and the Spirit. The Word of God came by way of the Holy Spirit to man (2 Peter 1:21; 1 Peter 1:10-13; 1 Cor. 2:10-13). Peter wrote, “you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit…having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:22,23). When a man reads, understands, and obeys the Holy Spirit revealed Word of God, he can be born again. Therefore, man is active in the process of regeneration. The Holy Spirit has done His part by providing the Divine instructions to man who must then hear and obey.

The second element in the rebirth is water. The early Christian writers were completely untied in understanding this to refer to water baptism. Many modern scholars understand this to be baptism.

“By ‘water’ here is evidently signified baptism” (Barnes Notes on the New Testament).
“We may observe, 1) that Jesus here lays down the preliminary conditions of entrance into His Kingdom, expanding and explaining His statement of verse 3…that water points definitely to the rite of baptism…” (Vincent’s Ward Studies in the New Testament).
“water, inasmuch as the man is baptized therewith (1 John 5:7-8; Ephesians 5:26) for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:33; Acts 22:16; 2 Corinthians 6:11)” (Meyer’s NT Comm)

However, one does not need scholars and the ancient writing of men to come to this conclusion. The general context points to water baptism. As a Jew, Nicodemus already associated water with spiritual purifying (John 3:6; 3:25). John the baptizer was baptizing many in water (Mark 1:5). Jesus’ disciples were baptizing many (John 3:22,26). Furthermore, the rest of the New Testament refers to the necessity of water baptism for salvation. “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” (Titus 3:4,5). In reference to what Jesus has done for His bride, the church, Paul wrote, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). Paul was told himself to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). The Hebrew writer said, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22). In Romans 6:1-4 Paul compares baptism to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. One is to die to sin, be buried with Christ in water baptism, and then he will experience a spiritual resurrection into newness of life when he comes up out of the water. Paul wrote to the Galatians making it clear that baptism was necessary for one to become a son of God. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26,27).

Still there are many denominational preachers today who will argue that one does not need to be baptized into water to be born-again. Years ago Billy Graham wrote a book called “How to be Born Again.” Ironically, the only time he even mentions water is in reference to the Thames River in London. And the only time he mentions baptism is when he talks about John’s baptism. He does tell us how one can be born again. “All you have to do to be born again is to repent of our sins and believe in the Lord Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” (Graham 156). Funny how Jesus or the writers of the New Testament never even mention this.

If you want to start over with a fresh new beginning, you must be born again by hearing the Holy Spirit revealed Word of God (Rom. 10:17), believing Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Mark 16:16), repent of your sins (Acts 22:16), confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God before men (Rom. 10:9,10), and be born of water by being baptized to wash away your sins (Acts 22:16) and thus put on Christ as a son of God (Gal. 3:26,27).

– Daniel R. Vess

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