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What Doesn’t Change In Regeneration

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August 16, 2009

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20, NIV)

Regeneration is one of the most important—and least understood—truths of our salvation in Christ. Many Christians have a good grasp of justification (forgiveness of sins) and sanctification (growth in the Christian life), but they do not have a good grasp of the regeneration that lies behind both justification and sanctification.

Today I want to review what we have learned about the change God brings in regeneration, and then to see what does not change in regeneration. To see what does not change in regeneration is as important as seeing what does change.

The Change God Brings in Regeneration

Regeneration is a real change in you

Someone asked me, “When the Bible says, ‘You are a new creation,’ is that just in the eyes of God or is it actually in you?” He had been told by an older Christian that we’re only new creations in the eyes of God.

If you were blind to the glory of Christ and now you see his glory, is that a change in the eyes of God or is it a change in you? If you had a heart of stone and now you have a heart of flesh, is that a change in the eyes of God or a change in you? It’s a change in you. Regeneration is a real change in you—accomplished by the power of God.

There is a memorable, but I think profoundly unhelpful phrase often attributed to Martin Luther: Christians are “snow covered dung.”[1] That memorable image makes the truth of justification very clear. Our righteousness is not in ourselves, but it is in Jesus Christ. It is the righteousness of Christ that covers us, so that while we are sinners by nature and practice, we are justified in the eyes of God.

While the phrase makes justification very clear, at the same time it obscures regeneration. It gives the impression that becoming a Christian doesn’t make any difference to who you are. And it does!

We are sinners to the last. When we enter heaven, it will be by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, and through his righteousness. Not one of us will enter into heaven on the last day because of our progress in the Christian life, but only on the basis of his shed blood and [of] righteousness that is ours by faith.

But while we are sinners to the last, we are regenerated sinners. You are not what you were, and one day the full glory of what God has begun in us will be made known.

Knowing what God has done for you in Christ is really important. God has justified you. He has forgiven you and clothed you in Christ’s perfect righteousness, so that being justified by faith you have peace with God.

God has also regenerated you. He has made you a new creation in Christ. His life is in you by the Holy Spirit. That is the truth we are trying to grasp more clearly in this series.

Regeneration bears fruit in faith, repentance & obedience

You may be wondering, “Has this amazing work of God really happened in my life? And if it has, how can I know?”

There are many Christians who would say, “I can’t name a specific time and place where I came to Jesus Christ. Other people speak about a day when they came to Christ. I can’t do that.”

Think about the analogy of physical birth. How do you know that you were born? You can’t remember it, and that’s probably just as well! Though you have no recollection of your birth, and even if you had never met your mother, you know that you were born from the indisputable fact that you are alive!

It’s the same with the new birth. What does it mean to be spiritually alive? Faith in Christ, love for Christ, repentance towards Christ, hope in Christ, and life in the Holy Spirit; these are the evidences that you have been born again—whether you remember it or not—you have been regenerated by the Spirit of God, and Christ lives in you.

It follows that if you do not love Christ or trust Christ or follow Christ, this life is not in you, and you should not deceive yourself by pretending that it is. You may have had some spiritual experience, but whatever that was, it was not regeneration if it did not lead you to love Christ and trust Christ and follow Christ, because regeneration bears the fruit of faith—repentance and obedience.

Some folks teach that if you repent and believe, then God will regenerate you. We’ve been learning that it is the other way round. Regeneration lies behind your faith in the same way that your birth lies behind your life.

Since by nature our minds are blind to the glory of God and our hearts are resistant to the love of God, we don’t have it in us to produce repentance and faith until God shines his light into our minds and changes our hearts so that we begin to seek after him.

Faith is the fruit of regeneration, not its cause. The wonderful explanation of your loving Christ, trusting Christ, and following Christ is that God regenerated you.

Regeneration makes the Christian life possible

A whole life of growing and developing lies ahead of the child who is born. The child will stumble and fall in many ways, but the birth of the child makes his or her life and growth possible.

It’s the same with the new birth. Regeneration does not make you a perfect saint, but it does make the Christian life possible. Regeneration is the beginning of the life that grows in sanctification.

When a healthy baby is born, the little one has everything he or she needs for life and for growth. When you become a Christian, God gives you everything you need to live your new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. You will grow as you feed on the Word of God, get exercise in obedience, and keep warm in the fellowship of God’s people.

We have seen what changes in regeneration. God changes your mind, heart, will, and conscience; making you a new creation in Jesus Christ.

What Doesn’t Change in Regeneration

By the grace of God, I am a new creation in Christ. But my eyes are the same color as they were before. The new birth has not changed my accent or my height. There are many things that do not change in regeneration. We need to understand what does not change, as well as what does, if we are to be wise in living the Christian life.

If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come. (2 Cor. 5:17)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

Paul is describing our new life in Christ. He is saying the same thing in two different ways. Galatians 2:20 is really a commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:17: “I no longer live” means the same thing as “the old has gone,” and “Christ lives in me” means “the new has come.”

The new life is by faith

The life I live… I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

This new life is by faith in the Son of God. That means believing that Christ is for you, with you, and in you. It means trusting Christ to sustain you—whatever you are facing. We live this new life “by faith in the Son of God.”

The new life is in the body

The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

This new life is also lived “in the body.” That means you will struggle with the unique challenges of your own temperament. You will feel the pull of your own flesh. You will sometimes find yourself lacking courage, losing heart, and lamenting your inconsistency. You will experience sickness, temptation, weakness, and eventually death. I live this life “in the body.”

The new life is lived “by faith” and “in the body.” I have found the following as a helpful framework for living the new life.

1. Regeneration does not change your temperament: It will change your usefulness

God created you. He’s created each one of us uniquely. He made you with your own unique gifts, personality, and temperament. The new birth does not violate what God has made. Shy sinners become shy Christians. Zany sinners become zany Christians. Cautious sinners become cautious Christians. Cool sinners become cool Christians.

Regeneration does not make you somebody else; it moves you in a new direction. Paul says that God makes you a new creation. He does not say that God makes you a different creation. You are made new, but you are still you!

There is a certain “Britishness” about me in my temperament—a reserve, a caution. I sometimes wish that I could shake it off, but it is who I am, not just by culture, but by temperament. There are plenty of British people who are “cool dudes,” but I am not one of them!

This is the frame with which God has made me and in which he has redeemed me. Regeneration has not changed my temperament. By God’s grace we can all grow and develop, but we grow within the frame of the temperament with which He has made us.

Think about the temperamental difference between artists and accountants. I know this is a caricature, but I think you will see my point. There may be some artists who are accountants and some accountants who are artists, but probably not many!

Accountants are meticulous, detail-oriented, and given to order and organization. Discipline comes to them more easily than it does to artists. Artists are creative, expressive, intuitive, and sometimes romantic. Spontaneity comes to them more easily than it does to accountants. Your life would be very different depending on whether you married an artist or an accountant. And when an artist marries an accountant life can get very interesting!

When an artist is regenerated, he or she does not become an accountant. He becomes a regenerated artist, or she becomes a regenerated accountant

It would be easy for the more expressive artists to conclude that the more reserved accountants do not love Christ because they do not close their eyes or raise their hands in worship. And it would be easy for the more schedule-driven accountants to conclude that the more spontaneous artists do not love Christ because they do not have a set schedule of reading the Bible every day.

We all need to grow, but God has made us different. Don’t lose the joy of following Christ by trying to conform to the image of the Christian next to you. We will all be conformed to the image of Christ, like the facets of a diamond that reflect the many colors of light, so every Christian will uniquely reflect the glory of Christ.

God never makes two snowflakes the same, and he certainly never makes two Christians the same. In regeneration, he takes your unique individuality and moves you in a new direction.

Take Saul of Tarsus. He was passionate. He was articulate. He was relentless. He was a leader before he came to Christ. God had put that in him. And Saul poured his abilities into the destruction of the Christian church.

Then God regenerated him. And from that time, God took what he had already put in this man by nature and used this passionate, articulate, relentless leader for the advance of the Gospel throughout the world.

God will take what he has placed in you and use it for his glory. God did not make us unique in creation just to make us all the same in redemption. God creates. He never clones.

Every Christian is being changed into the likeness of Christ, and here’s the good news: God’s purpose is to create a unique reflection of Jesus Christ in you. Don’t try to be somebody else. God has chosen to redeem you, the you he created. And he will use what he has put in you for his own glory.

2. Regeneration does not change your temptations: It will change the outcome

I love the story of the man who was baptized, and then said to his pastor, “I’m so glad that my sins have been washed away, and now I won’t have to face all those temptations.” The pastor said, “For that blessing I would have had to hold you under much longer!”

James says, “Each one is tempted when by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14). We live this life of faith in the body, and the temptations we face are tied to our flesh. So don’t expect that becoming a Christian will change the temptations that you face. If anything, your battle may be more vigorous as Satan, the enemy of your soul, throws everything at you.

What is your battle? Pride? Greed? Envy? Anger? Laziness? Lust? Gluttony? The temptations you face are to some extent rooted in your temperament. They come from your flesh. Some are always battling fear, but others don’t have that battle. Some are always battling pride, but others don’t battle with that so much.

We all face a battle with sin. But we face that battle in different ways. Take the issue of money. The impulse of some is to spend freely and to run up large debts. The impulse of others is save scrupulously and to pile up large portfolios. The sin of greed works in both temperaments, but it works in different ways.

So get to know the special temptations that lurk within the frame of your temperament. Is it a temptation to control, to withdraw, to resent, or to hoard? When you know your special temptations, examine how they work. Study your defeats. When did that happen? In what circumstances do you need to be especially watchful? Where are you most vulnerable to your own flesh?

Be like the football team that watches game film. They want to find out why they allowed that touchdown last game, so they watch it. Then they watch it in slow motion. They watch it again to analyze how the play might have been stopped, because they want to do better next time. Learn from your defeats, so that next time you will prevail.

John Owen in his masterful study of waging war on sin says:

We need to be intimately acquainted with the ways… and occasions which give sin (lust) its success. This is how men deal with their enemies. They search out their plans, ponder their goals, and consider how, and by what means they have prevailed over them in the past. Then they can be defeated.

One of the… most important parts of spiritual wisdom is to find out …how it [sin] uses occasions, opportunities, and temptations to gain advantage… We need to… trace this serpent in all of its turning and windings, and to bring its most secret tricks out into the open. We must learn to say “This is your usual method; I know what you are up to.[2]

Regeneration does not change your temptations. It will change the outcome. Sin will always be your enemy, but in Christ it will no longer be your master (Rom. 6:14).

3. Regeneration does not change your past: It will change your future

Many of us live in the good of blessings that have come to us from the past. Some of us live with great evils that have afflicted us early on in our lives. Some of us struggle with what we have done. Others struggle with what was done to them. Regeneration does not change the past. It does change the future.

If you are in Christ, your past no longer defines you. Paul describes the lifestyles from which God had redeemed these believers. Some had sinned heterosexually and homosexually, while others were thieves, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, and idolaters. Paul says, “That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

If you are in Christ, your past is no longer defining for you. The future is! Listen to how John puts it: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are… What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” That’s the future for you in Christ! “[and] everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

 

[1] The origin of this phrase is unclear. http://turretinfan.blogspot.com/2008/04/snow-covered-dung-heap-luther-langland.html

[2] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Publishing, 2004), 37

 

© Colin S. Smith

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By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: www.unlockingthebible.org



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