Regeneration: You Must Be Born Again
Topic: Topical Sermons Passage: John 3:1–3:10, Ezekiel 36:25–36:27, Titus 3:3–3:7, 1 Peter 1:3–1:25
What does it mean to be a “Christian?”
Well, it depends who you ask. The Pew Research Group recently posed that question to a random sample of American people who identified themselves as “Christian, ranging from being “more religious” to “less religious.” Curiously, only eighty-six percent of the respondents said that a belief in God was required in order to be a “Christian.” Remember, these were people who claimed to be “Christians,” and fourteen percent indicated that a belief in God was not essential!
Included in that same survey was an open-ended item that allowed those questioned to describe in their own words what else might be considered by them to be an indispensable part of being a Christian. Shockingly, only eleven percent responded that “salvation through Jesus” was a necessary requirement for being a Christian.
One evening Jesus Himself was approached by a religious teacher with a similar inquiry, and His answer was a straightforward “You must be born again” (John 3:7). In other words, a “rebirth” must take place if one was to become a follower of Christ. Jesus said that there must be “regeneration,” or the granting of a “new life” before one could legitimately label himself a “Christian.”
“Born again.” The term has become so familiar to us that it has lost much of its force since the Lord first said it to Nicodemus in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Today, for example, there are those who call themselves as “born-again Christians,” as if there were any other kind. To describe oneself in that way is to be redundant. That is because there is no such thing as a “non-born-again Christian.” An “unregenerate Christian” is a contradiction in terms.
This morning we climb to the next rung on the Ordo Salutis ladder, the one that is labeled “regeneration.” As we consider the so-called “order of salvation,” I remind you that the “order” we are referring to is one that is logical or theological rather than chronological. As we have seen in recent weeks, most of the blessings of salvation actually occur simultaneously rather than consecutively. The reason they are presented in this way is to help us understand the many facets of what Scripture calls “such a great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).
It is becoming clear to us that God is the main Actor in the miracle of salvation, and He has not been silent about what He has done. While we will never be able to fully grasp all of God’s “behind-the-scenes” providential designs in bringing about the salvation of sinful men and women, it is clear that He does not want for us to be ignorant about it. And as we shall see today, the bottom line is that we all “must be born again.” To enter into a saving relationship with the Lord, it is imperative that we experience the “new birth,” passing from a state of spiritual death and brought into a state of life through the process of “regeneration.”
In considering this today, I would like to pose and hopefully answer five basic questions related to the aspect of our salvation known as “regeneration.” The first being...
What is the “new birth”?
Another way to pose that question would be to ask, “What is meant by the word ‘regeneration?’” Literally, the term refers to “the coming into being of new life.”
“Regeneration” has been called “the work of God that gives life to the one who believes.” An equally simple but more accurate definition would be to say that it is “the process by which God gives life to spiritually dead people.” The reason I prefer that second description over the first is that it places God, not man, as the principle player in the process of regeneration. As Wayne Grudem has written, “Regeneration (is) the act of God awakening spiritual life within us, bringing us from spiritual death to spiritual life.” What that suggests is that regeneration must precede saving faith and not proceed from it. To put it another way, the ability to respond to the Lord in faith requires—and we might say, hinges upon—an act of God.
This is clearly deduced from Ephesians 2:5, where we are reminded that “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ.” The King James Version used the verb “quicken” to describe this “enlivening” act of God. Our Lord takes that which is dead and lifeless and breathes His life into it, in a manner not unlike the day He breathed life into the first man at the dawn of creation (cf. Genesis 2:7). That is, in fact, a fitting comparison because what humanity lost because of that first Adam’s sin in the Garden is restored through the work of the “second Adam” at the Cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45).
The Apostle John is the chief expositor of “regeneration” in the New Testament. His perspective of the “new birth” is that it is a secret work of the Spirit acted upon the sinner, as inscrutable as the blowing of the wind, but manifesting itself at once by faith in Christ and a life of obedience and love. The “new birth” or “regeneration” results in the supernatural creation of spiritual life. This truth is seen in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus as recorded in the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel. Follow along as I begin reading in verse 1:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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 him, ‘Truly, truly, 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, ‘Truly, truly, 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 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.’” (John 3:1-10).
There are several observations that we can make as we listen in on this amazing conversation. It is clear that Nicodemus was caught off-guard by Jesus’ responses to his questions. Shockingly, he was told that his eternal fate did not rest in his own hands. It was God who controlled his destiny. He could no more cause a “new birth” than he could his first birth. If he were to be “born again,” he must rely decisively and ultimately on God. He needed to realize that everything depended not on getting a new religion, but on getting a new life. And that meant not merely affirming God’s supernatural activity, but actually experiencing it.
Nicodemus had to learn, and so must we, that there is no spiritual life—no eternal life—apart from connecting with and believing in Jesus. Through the process of the “new birth,” the Holy Spirit unites us in a living union with Jesus. It is God who awakens this reality within us and draws us to Christ. It is the life of Jesus that engenders the “new birth.”
It is imperative that we realize that Jesus is not talking about an improvement of our old human nature, but the creation of a new nature...one that is still you, but forgiven and cleansed...a nature that is truly new and being generated within you by the indwelling Spirit of God. It is not an “outward reformation,” but an “inward regeneration.”
As “the teacher of Israel” (cf. John 3:10), Nicodemus should have been able to link what Jesus was saying with the prophecy of Ezekiel, given nearly six centuries earlier. At that time the Lord had said to His people,
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Forgiveness and cleansing alone are not enough. We need to be made new. We need to be transformed. That which is “dead” needs to be made alive. We need a whole new way of thinking and valuing. God said that He would replace the stony heart with “a heart of flesh,” one that is able to sense the worth of Jesus Christ. That is what the “new birth” does.
That opens up a second question, which is...
Why must we experience the “new birth”?
Remember, Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). In other words, it is not an option, but an absolute necessity. The reason is because—as we have already alluded to—we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Man is not merely impaired, he is “dead.” Spiritual death has been humanity’s flawed and fatal condition since that first sin in the Garden. From as early as Genesis 6:5 we read that “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And it still is. Until we realize that we are “dead,” we are in no position to apprehend the life, the love, and the grace of God.
We may think that we know ourselves well enough to diagnose our condition and prescribe our own cure, when in reality the depravity of our state is far beyond our ability to even understand. Jeremiah (17:9) summed it up well when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Left to ourselves, we are never able to comprehend the depth of our sinfulness. It is deeper than anyone can fathom. That is why we need the “new birth.”
The work of “regeneration” flows from the richness of God’s mercy and the greatness of His love (cf. Ephesians 2:4-5). It is the expression of His covenant promises for His people.
The Scriptures bear abundant witness to our fallen and corrupt state. Apart from the “new birth” not only are “dead in our trespasses” (Ephesians 2:5), we are said to be “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), “(loving) the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19), because of our “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Consequerntly, we are said to be unable to “submit to God’s law” or to “please God” (Romans 8:7-8) or even to “accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). As a result, “unless it is granted (to us) by the Father,” we are unable to come to Christ and embrace Him as Lord (John 6:59).
The Bible further describes our condition as one of bondage. We are said to be “slaves of sin” (Romans 6:17), having been “captured (by the devil)...to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). As Romans 7:18 expresses it, apart from being “born again” and experiencing the miracle of regeneration, “nothing good dwells in me...I have no ability” to do “what is right” even if I wanted to. The Reformers described our helpless and hopeless condition as being “totally depraved.” And because it is universally wide in its scope, it makes the “new birth” necessary for us all.
That inevitably leads to the next question, which is...
How does one experience the “new birth?”
“Regeneration” has been made possible because of the incarnation, sinless life, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The awfulness of our sin cannot be measured to its full until we see it as the dark backdrop against which our Lord’s crucifixion is laid. As has been said many times, Jesus lived the life that we could not live, and died the death we should have died.
In order for us to experience the “new birth,” something must happen to us and not just for us. God must work a miracle in our hearts and impart His life to us. We are “dead” and must be made alive. In John Piper’s words, “We need ears that can hear truth as supremely desirable, and we need eyes that see Christ and his way of salvation as supremely beautiful. We need hearts that are soft and receptive to the word of God. In short, we need new life. We need to be born-again.”
Titus 3:5 is the only place in the Bible where the term, “regeneration” (“παλιγγενεσια”) is used within the context of personal salvation. So, I’ll begin reading at verse 3 of Titus 3:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7).
The reference to “washing” places this text within the contexts of the John 3 and Ezekiel 36 passages. What’s more, these verses tell us that “regeneration” comes to us not as the result of any good thing we have done, but “according to (God’s) mercy” and the “richness” of His “grace” is displayed “through Jesus Christ our Savior.” And notice that the outcome of God’s activity on our behalf is “the hope of eternal life.”
Earlier Thomas read for us from the 1st chapter of Peter’s first epistle. Within that passage we find three statements regarding God’s regenerating work in the lives of His people. In verse 3 we are told that God “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Then down in verse 23, it is stated that we are “born again...through the living and abiding word of God.” And finally, in verse 18, it is suggested that the “new birth” comes as a result of our being “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from (our) forefathers.”
When we take these three statements together, we can see once again that God is the “prime mover” in bringing about the experience of the “new birth.” And when we consider them in their logical order of occurrence, we see that first, God ransomed us by the blood of Jesus; second, God raised Jesus from the dead; and third, God called us into life through His Word. There is the ransom, the resurrection, and the call. In summary, the “new birth” is something that happens in us when the Holy Spirit takes hold of our dead hearts and unites us to Christ by faith so that His life becomes our life.
As we noted last Sunday when considering God’s “effectual call,” that “call” creates what it commands. The internal call is God’s sovereign, creative, unstoppable voice, thus “obtaining,” as 1 Peter 1:9 declares, “the salvation of (our) souls.” The Gospel call goes out in a general way to all, and the Divine seed is implanted in some in a specific and effectual way. To cite Jesus’ words from Matthew 22:14, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Can a person know for certain that he or she has experienced the “new birth”? To answer that question involves asking another, which is “Who or what are you trusting right now to save you from the wrath of God and the judgment you deserve?” Your role in the event of the “new birth” is to exercise faith in the crucified and risen Son of God. Being “born again” implies absolute confidence in His finished work on your behalf. So, are you valuing Christ for who He is and what He has done to bring about the “new birth” in your life?
As we move on from this part of the discussion, I ask that you consider four thoughts: First, as Acts 16:31 declares, we must “believe in the Lord Jesus” in order to be saved. The Second, left to ourselves we will not believe. There is no hope that the dead will ever breathe by themselves. Third, as we have seen, the life of God is the decisive cause of our faith. It is He alone who is able to bring the dead to life. And fourth, the experience of the “new birth” will result in lives that are characterized by love for the people and the things of God. 1 Peter 1:22 exhorts, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”
That takes us to the next question relating to “regeneration,” which is...
What are the effects of the “new birth?”
Those who have been “born again” will manifest outward behaviors that testify to the reality that their lives have been “regenerated” by the power of God. In John’s first epistle toward the end of the New Testament, several of these effects are mentioned. John’s point seems to be that without these “evidences,” there is no warrant or proof of one’s salvation. That is why he says near the conclusion of that letter, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
So what are some of the “effects” of the “new birth” that will be manifested? Among others, we are informed that those who are “born of God”...
- ...keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-4, 3:24)
- ...walk (or conduct ourselves) as Christ Himself walked (1 John 2:5-6)
- ...love rather than hate others (1 John 2:9, 3:14, 4:7-8, 4:20)
- ...do not love the world (1 John 2:15)
- ...confess Christ to others (1 John 2:23, 4:15)
- ...practice righteousness (1 John 2:29)
- ...donot make a practice of sinning (1 John 3:6, 3:9-10, 5:18)
- ...possess the Spirit of God (1 John 3:24, 4:13)
- ...listen submissively to the Word of God (1 John 4:6)
- ...believe that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1)
- ...overcome the world (1 John 5:4).
If we are honest, we would have to admit that it is this final point that we seem to struggle with the most. But let’s be clear. John is not declaring that Christians are “sinlessly perfect.” At the same time, neither is he allowing for “defection” in the Christian life. Believers are called to faithfully endure...but that is never without a struggle. One’s endurance in Christ is the evidence of the “new birth.” As we have seen in our list of “effects” or “evidences” of the “new birth,” we have been called to obedience...not begrudging obedience, but obedience born out of the love that God has created in our hearts. Those who have been truly “born again” will struggle with obedience from time to time, but their lives will be characterized by persistently and consistently overcoming the world.
Because we have been regenerated, we have been granted faith to believe God and to love Him and others. Loving God does not mean mere outward performance. It means having a heart for God and God’s people, something that doesn’t come naturally. That is why we “must be born again.” And when we are, we are given the supernatural ability to love in the way that He loves. Such love is the perhaps greatest evidence of the “new birth.”
Lest any of us despair, I remind you again that when we fail—as will every believer at one time or another—“we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Therefore, another aspect of the “new birth” is that we run to Him every time we sin, confessing our sin and claiming His forgiveness afresh. How grateful we should be that God sees every believer “in Christ” and clothed in His righteousness (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). The “new birth” rests on His righteous and sinless life. Let us, then, embrace the forgiveness He has purchased and rest assured that those who are truly His are His forever.
If we have been “born again,” regenerated by God’s Spirit, then the question you and I should be asking is...
How can we help others experience the “new birth?”
The quick and simple answer is that we must be telling other people the Good News of Jesus Christ. Too many of us are unmotivated or paralyzed with fear when it comes to sharing our faith with others. Such feelings are understandable, but we should labor—through the Lord’s enabling—to overcome those fears in order that we may be able to carry out the call to make Him known to others (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).
As we grow from infancy in the Christian life, we should be availing ourselves of the power of God’s Spirit to put to death feelings that are out of sync with the truth and to lay hold of God for the transformation of those feelings so that we are led along the path of obedience. We have been called to Christ in infancy, but we are not to remain as infants. Instead, as Paul expressed it to the Ephesian church, “We are to grow up into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). And as we do, others will “see (our) good works and give glory to (our) Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
J.I. Packer has built upon the analogy of the “new birth,” noting the correspondence with the natural actions of a newborn child. He likens the baby’s first cries to the intuitive and dependent prayers of one recently “born again” to the Heavenly Father. Next, he likens the baby’s instinctive hunger to the new Christian’s desire for spiritual food...first, the milk and then the meat of God’s Word. Then, as the child moves, turning its head and flexing its limbs, later rolling, crawling, and toddling, the parallel is that of the new believer exploring his new surroundings in the spiritual realm. And finally, the baby rests, relaxing and sleeping soundly in adult arms, similar to the way the child of God learns to rest in the strong and everlasting arms of the Heavenly Father. Packer concludes by saying, “Childlikeness before God is what regeneration is all about.”
And while that is true, it does not tell the whole story. Just as newborn infants grow through childhood, adolescence, and into the adult life, so those who have been “born again” will mature spiritually. In fact, Peter concluded his second epistle by saying that we must “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). As we grow we recognize that we are part of a new family, His Church. We come to realize that it is an intimate relationship not legitimately entered into by an act of the will, but by the sovereign choice and call of God. It is a relationship begun and forged through the “new birth.”
Regardless of how long we may have known Christ, we must perpetually bear in mind that we all come to Him as helpless children, totally dependent upon the Father’s grace and mercy. As we have opportunity to share the Gospel with those who are without Christ, let us remember that if people are to be “born again,” it will happen through by hearing the word of God, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and declared by people like you and me.
The “regeneration” of any individual is the work of God from start to finish. What that means is that...
- He causes the seed of the Gospel to be planted through our faithful witness.
- He brings about the “new birth” when we share the facts of the Gospel with others.
- He regenerates people when we tell them who Christ is and what he has done on the cross and in the resurrection.
- He gives brand new life to dead hearts when we speak the truth of the Gospel.
So, how can we help, others experience the “new birth”? We must tell them. I remind you of this challenge from Romans 10:13-14 and 17:
“‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?...so faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
My friends, if you have been regenerated and given life in Christ through the “new birth,” it is imperative that you share that Good News with others. Who in your family, in the place where you work, in the shops and restaurants that you frequent needs to hear the Gospel? Have you told them that they “must be born again”?
So, let’s go back to the question I asked when we began this message: What does it mean to be a “Christian?” We live a day when people are answering in any number of ways...many—perhaps most—of them without biblical support. It is imperative that we understand what it means to be “born again,” to be regenerated by God’s Spirit as God’s Word describes it. Nothing less than eternity hangs in the balance.
When our family lived in Dallas, we would often pass one of the largest Baptist churches in that area. Twenty-five years ago that church suddenly withdrew from the Southern Baptist Convention citing theological and political differences and desiring to become more “inclusive” in its identity. Interestingly, the decision was made shortly after the arrival of its current pastor. While the move was controversial at the time, few foresaw that it signaled the first step away from the purity of the Gospel message that the church had once proudly proclaimed. It would prove to be a departure from which there would be no return. Two weeks ago, led by that same pastor and more than sixty-percent of its members, the church voted to grant full membership status to practicing homosexual and transgender people in the name of “inclusion.” But even more telling, was a statement that accompanied the news reports. Admittedly, no longer does this church, and I quote, “accept the evangelical doctrine that only those who accept Jesus as their savior will be saved from hell.” In other words, this church is now telling the world, you don’t really need to be “born again.”
Rather than shaking our heads, let us recognize that at the moment we begin to shake ourselves free from our Lord’s exclusive statement, we too will find ourselves on that same slippery slope. May the Lord who gave Himself up in order to transfer us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light and the state of death to the state of life, grant us grace to hear, respond to, and live in the full knowledge of His statement that “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God...You must be born again” (John 3:3 and 5).