“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…” Titus 3:5 (NIV)
What difference does believing in Jesus make in a person’s life? If a person who did not believe, now believes, what else changes? What difference does this make?
What’s the difference between a person who goes to heaven and a person who goes to hell? Is it simply that the person who goes to heaven believes certain things about Jesus the other person does not?
Are we basically all the same, except that a Christian believes certain things about Jesus, or is there something more? And if there’s more, what is it? How is the person who is in Christ different?
The Problem of Our Sinful Nature
“The Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
The word power tells us that something more than forgiveness is involved in our salvation. What has happened to you that could only be explained by the intervention of God’s power? What has God done in you that is miraculous?
Jesus accomplished our salvation on the cross. He cried out in a loud voice “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Then on the third day, He rose from the dead. Jesus saves us through His atoning death and His glorious resurrection, but how does that salvation, purchased on the cross, become effective in a person’s life?
The obvious answer would seem to be “by repentance and faith.” But how is it possible for a person who is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), to repent and believe?
“The sinful mind is hostile to God” (Romans 8:7). That’s the mind we’re all born with. How can a hostile mind trust God and believe His Word? “Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). That’s the nature we’re born with. How can men who love darkness, love God who is light—in whom there is no darkness?
“The human heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). How can repentance and faith come from a devious, wicked, and twisted heart? And if the human heart cannot produce repentance and faith, how can anyone at all be saved?
The Bible’s Answer to the Problem of Sin: Regeneration
Regeneration is the most neglected and least understood dimension of our salvation. Most Christians understand justification, that Christ forgives our sins, and makes us right with the Father. Most Christians understand glorification, that Christ will take us to heaven and that when we see Him we will be like Him.
But many Christian do not have a good grasp of regeneration:
Regeneration is the work of God, by which He changes your soul so that with a new mind and a new heart, you love Him, trust Him and follow Him freely.
Normally, in our preaching ministry here, we study a book of the Bible. But, in this series, we will be learning a major Bible doctrine that is fundamental to the whole Christian life. That means we will be looking at wonderful statements from many different parts of the Bible.
Where is the word regeneration found in the Bible?
The first thing to say is that you won’t find the word regeneration in the New International Version, but you will in most of the other major translations of the Bible.
In Titus 3, the NIV reads “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…”
“He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit…” Titus 3:5 (NIV—New International Version)
“He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…” Titus 3:5 (NASB—New American Standard)
“He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” Titus 3:5 (ESV—English Standard Version)
“He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit…” Titus 3:5 (KJV—King James Version)
This regeneration is how Christ saves us, so it is obviously important.
What does regeneration mean in the Bible?
“Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also will sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Matthew 19:28 (NASB)
We get a clue to the meaning of regeneration from the Gospel of Matthew, the only other place where it’s used in the Bible. Jesus is speaking to his disciples about the new heaven and the new earth, when this suffering, pain-filled, fallen planet will be transformed. The effects of Adam’s sin will be changed so that “The whole creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).
The Lord Jesus uses the word “regeneration” to describe this transformation. Regeneration involves taking something—in this case the planet—that’s been devastated by the fall and making it new, so that it reflects the glory of God. The Bible uses the same word and says “That is what God has done in you, if you are in Christ!”
What God will one day do for this planet, He has already done in you! The earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). And so will you if you are in Christ! How? Because He saved us by the washing of regeneration!
Where else in the Bible do we find regeneration described?
Now you may be saying “Is this all there is? One verse from Titus, and a parallel verse that uses the same word with a different meaning?” No, there is much more…
“No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again… You must be born again.” John 3:3,6 (NIV)
The Bible describes the miracle of regeneration in several different ways, but perhaps the best known example is when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, a very religious man, about being “born again,” or “born of the Spirit.”
Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
The Holy Spirit regenerates us through the Word of God. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
Peter uses the analogy of how human life begins. The living seed comes, and in a moment, a new life is conceived. The seed does not always bring new life, but there is no new life without the seed. You are born again by the living seed of the Word of God.
You may ask “Why don’t you just say you’re talking about being ‘born again’”? In our culture, the words ‘born again’ have been so abused that for many people they have lost their meaning. Many people in our country would say that they are born again, but they do not love Christ, and they do not live in a way that is different from the world.
There’s a pop song that has a line “Lying in your arms, I’m born again.” Born again there means ‘feeling better’ and many people have the idea that’s what the new birth is. Vanessa Williams? The new birth is Christ regenerating your soul. It is a miracle of such breathtaking proportions that it can only be compared to the re-creation of the heavens and the earth.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 2 Corinthians 5:17
“God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:5
If you are in Christ, this is what has happened to you. God has made you alive. A spiritual resurrection has taken place in your soul. More than just forgiveness, God has given you new life from the dead. You have been regenerated.
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:25-26
Ezekiel lays out two promises of the gospel: 1) When God makes us clean, that’s forgiveness, justification, and 2) when God gives us a new heart, that’s the new birth or regeneration. “Not only will I wash you, I’ll change you!”
Statement of faith
Regeneration is also in our statement of faith. Every member of our church affirms these truths:
“We believe that the Holy Spirit, in all that He does, glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ. He convicts the world of its guilt. He regenerates sinners, and in Him they are baptized into union with Christ and adopted as heirs in the family of God…”
The Kind of Change Regeneration Promises
The title for this series gives a very simple definition of regeneration: “How Christ Changes Your Soul.” Regeneration is a change that Christ brings about by His Holy Spirit. It is a change in your soul. Forgiveness is what Christ does for you. Regeneration is what Christ does in you.
Regeneration happens in your soul. It is how Christ changes who you are. I’ve chosen that word deliberately. Regeneration is a change in your soul, rather than a change in your life. When we talk about our ‘life,’ we’re referring to things that are happening to us or things that we do.
You are born, you go to school, you get involved in sports. You take up a trade, you go to college, you travel. You get a job, you get married, you have children. You lose a job, you get another job. You get sick, you grow old, and you die. That’s your life—the things you do or the things that happen to you. If your life is what is happening to you, then what is your soul? Your soul is the you to whom these things happen.
Christians often say “Jesus will change your life.” Many people assume that means “Jesus will change the things that happen to me.” So, if He is going to change the things that happen to me, I should meet the right girl, get a new job, recover from this illness, etc.”
But that’s not the promise!! Regeneration is not a change in what’s happening to you. It is a change in the you to whom these things are happening. It is a change in your soul.
We are all concerned about what is happening in our lives. God is concerned above all else about the you to whom these things are happening. Christians face the same experiences of sickness and death as others. We live with the same dangers and temptations, the same pressures and struggles as those who are not Christians. It’s life!
Christ’s redeeming work does not lie in changing the things that are happening to you. It lies in changing the you to whom these things happen.
God’s Work in Us Births Our Work in Him
Wayne Grudem, who taught for many years at TEDS says:
“In the work of regeneration we play no active role at all. It is instead totally a work of God.”
He’s making the point that in some respects, we play a role in salvation—believing and repenting. But regeneration has to be God’s work! Being born is something that happens to you. It is not something that you do for yourself.
If we have grasped from the Bible that, by nature, we are dead in trespasses and sins, then we will understand that the dead cannot give themselves life. Only God can give new life to the dead.
Regeneration is God’s work! “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). It is something that God does. It is not something we do.
Regeneration is the sovereign work of the Spirit. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Regeneration is God’s gift. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created” (James 1:18).
How Regeneration Relates to Repentance and Faith
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12
The people who become God’s children are the ones who believe. But then John goes on to say “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).
Regeneration and faith happen at the same time, but they are quite different in the way that they happen. Regeneration is a work that God does on his own. Faith is a work in which you are involved “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
These two things happen together, although they are very different. Those who believe in His name become God’s children. They become God’s children because they are born of God.
There’s an ancient illustration that I’ve found helpful here. Think about a sunrise. When the sun comes up in the morning, there is light. These two things happen together, never the one without the other.
We would say “It is light because the sun rises.” But we would never say “The sun rises because it is light.” Regeneration is like the sun rising. Faith is like the light that it brings. Behind all believing lies the miracle of God’s regenerating grace.
Where Regeneration Can Be Found
Have you seen the amazing miracle of God’s work of regeneration in your own life? Can you see that the only explanation for this is that Christ has done, not only an amazing work on the cross, but also an amazing work in you?
You may be saying, “Regeneration sounds wonderful, but it hasn’t happened to me. So, what can I do about it? If regeneration, as you are saying, is something that God does, what hope is there for me?
That’s a great question to which the Bible has a crystal clear answer. I want you to see that answer today. If you are a Christian, you will encounter this question at some time.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and Jesus tells him “You must be born again” (John 3:6). Nicodemus asks him “How can this be? I can’t get back into my mother’s womb!” (v9). Jesus does NOT say “Here is how you can get yourself born again. Follow these five easy steps.”
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:14-16 (NIV)
Jesus is the Son of God. He was lifted up on the cross. In this way, He became the Savior who offers himself to all people. If you will believe in Him you will have eternal life. He says, without qualifications “Whoever believes in me shall not perish” (v16).
We find the same thing in Acts 16. Paul is in prison. God sends an earthquake, the prison walls are crumbling, and the jailer is terrified. He asks this question “What must I do to be saved?” Paul does not say to him “You must be born again,” because he can’t do that. He says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Paul says the same thing in Acts 16 that Jesus says in John 3. But how can I do that if I am dead in trespasses and sins? Doesn’t that mean God is asking me to do what I cannot do?
Stretch Out Your Hand
Let me give you a picture that has helped me here. Mark tells us about a time when Jesus went into a synagogue. There was a man there with a withered hand. It was dysfunctional.
Jesus called the man out of the crowd, and had him stand up in front of everyone. It must have been rather embarrassing for the fellow. “[Jesus] said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’” (Mark 3:5). Put yourself in this man’s shoes: “Don’t you see, Jesus, that’s the one thing that I cannot do!”
What’s the man going to do? He could stand there face-to-face with Jesus and have a long debate about his own inability. He could say “Lord Jesus, you’re asking me to do something that I cannot do.” That debate can go on forever.
He could take offense at the Lord Jesus. He could say “Are you mocking me, by telling me to stretch out my hand, when it’s perfectly obvious that I can’t do it? I’m out of here!” Then he could turn around and walk out of the synagogue.
Mark records very simply “[Jesus] said to the man ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out…” (Mark 3:5-6). The Son of God is looking him in the eye, saying “I’m calling you to do it!” He stretched out his hand and in his action, a miracle of God’s grace was revealed.
Imagine this guy on his national tour, giving his testimony afterwards. What do you think he was going on about for the rest of his life? Do you think he stood up in all the other synagogues and said “Let me tell you the story about the great day when I stretched out my hand!” No! He got up and he said something like this “Let me tell you about how Jesus Christ healed me.”
The Lord Jesus Christ says to you “Believe!” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. You can stand there and have all the arguments you want with God, or you can take offense at Him and walk away. Your life will never be changed.
Once you believe, you cannot help but see that God has done something in you that can only be compared to the recreation of the heavens and the earth. That’s regeneration! If you are in Christ, I want you to begin opening your eyes to what He has done in this miracle of regeneration in your soul.
I want you to experience the new birth. Don’t settle for a vague acceptance of Christian truths that leave you feeling that God is far from you, and disconnected from your life. That is not New Testament Christianity!
When a fire is lit, you feel its heat and you see its light. When you are born again, you know that you are different. You love Christ. You believe the Gospel. You have a hunger for the Word of God. There’s a strength in you that you did not have before.
Your mind, heart, will, conscience, memory and imagination are different. They function in a different way, because your soul has changed. That’s what regeneration is all about. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.699
© Colin S. Smith
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