Theology 101: Understanding Regeneration

Regeneration (also referred to as being “born again”) refers to new spiritual life which God gives a person. The new regenerative life is what brings a person from spiritual death to spiritual life. 

The Holy Spirit is immensely important in the work of the salvation of souls and in the work of God’s church. In Ezekiel 36, the prophet points to a future time of washing and renewal. In that passage, we see three stages of regeneration which the Lord brings through the Spirit. 

First, the Spirit brings renewal 

Ezekiel 36:25: I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Ezekiel is in the Old Testament and he’s looking forward to a future time of cleansing that God would bring by means of the Holy Spirit. We live in that time now. When we are regenerated, it is a Spiritual cleansing which the Lord brings. 

With the water, it’s easy to draw parallels to baptism. And in fact, the filling of the Holy Spirit is referred to as a baptism. 

John 1:33. John the Baptist is speaking about Jesus and says: He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

It is a privilege which all Christians share, as we see in 1 Corinthians 12:13: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body

All believers in the gospel of Christ are filled with the Spirit. There’s no such thing as a Christian who does not have the Spirit. 

Romans 8:9-10 is a great passage which communicates this idea: 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

So we are baptized into the Holy Spirit. Water baptism then is a symbol of the regeneration and cleansing which comes through the Holy Spirit. Baptism does not bring salvation in itself. It’s an important and powerful outward symbol of an inward work which the Lord has done. 

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

What a powerful picture of God’s grace and renewal. 

In Shakespear’s great play, MacBeth, there’s a scene where Lady MacBeth is overcome with grief and guilt for her murderous greed and ambition and she desperately tries to wash a blood stain off of her hands. 

There’s no actual blood stain. It’s in her mind. But that’s the brilliance of the scene. Because we all have a stain of sin upon our hearts and lives that we cannot wash away on our own. It is God who brings the cleansing and renewal. 

In Psalm 51, David too is ravaged by guilt and grief over a terrible sin he’s committed. His affair with Bathsheeba and him sending her husband Uriah to the frontlines in battle where he was killed. 

David pleads with God: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 

And in John 3:3, Jesus says: Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God

He will then talk of the cleansing which accompanies regeneration. John 3:5-6: 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Water and Spirit. 

To have faith is to have the Spirit and to have the Spirit is to be cleansed. 

You have all sorts of rituals in the Old Testament. Washing is a powerful symbol of purity throughout various cultures and religions. 

The washing that God gives through the Spirit is a cleansing of the human soul. 

We see the language of this renewal again in Titus 3:4-5: when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 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

It is because of the mercy of God that we are made morally clean through the work of the Holy Spirit. 

So through regeneration, God cleanses us. Through being born again, God cleanses us. 

When Jesus says, “you must be born again,” that’s another fantastic metaphor for regeneration. 

Because it is a new birth. You’re a new person in Christ. Also, the metaphors matters because we are regenerated as a one time event. 

Jesus said that we must be born again. He did not say that we must be born again…and again and again. 

It’s not that we are saved today, then we lose that, then we do better and we’re saved tomorrow. Many Christians believe that. It’s not a Biblical idea. 

We’re sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantor of our salvation. 

Ephesians 1:13-14: In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. 

Second, the Spirit gives us a new heart 

Returning to our passage in Ezekiel: 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.

Once again, what an incredible metaphor that the Bible uses. I assume it’s because of the Bible that the heart has become such a powerful symbol in our culture. Think about it for just a moment. 

Someone who’s very kind if referred to as tender-hearted. Someone who’s unkind and unfeeling is called cold-hearted. When we’re really sincere, we say something is from the bottom of our heart. When we see an impressive athletic display, we say they played their heart out. Really difficult situations are seen as heartbreaking. 

And there are lots more little phrases like that. It’s a powerful symbol in our culture that we see as being the seat of our emotions. 

Because of regeneration, God gives us a new heart. Thousands of Americans wait on donor lists in need of heart transplants. Heart disease is annually the leading cause of death in America with more than 1 in 5 deaths coming from heart disease. 

Our hearts don’t last forever. And certainly, the heart is important in the Bible. Love the Lord your God with all your…What comes first? Heart. 

Quoting again from David in Psalm 51:10, he asks God: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me

We cannot make our hearts pure. But the good news is that through regeneration, God does a heart transplant in us. He gives us a new heart and a new Spirit. So the Spirit brings renewal through cleansing, it is through the Spirit that we are given a new heart. 

Third, the Spirit enables us to follow God’s law 

The gospel changes lives. When we’re born again, that doesn’t mean that we never struggle, it doesn’t mean we’ll never sin. But we are forgiven. 

We aren’t perfect but we’re declared righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. But true recognition of sin, true faith in Christ, that changes a person. And it’s often especially noticed when an adult comes to faith. 

If you have a child who’s grown up in the church and always had faith as part of their life, that’s an incredible blessing. And there certainly is a moment when faith becomes more real to a person, where their trust truly is in the gospel. 

But when you have someone who’s an adult and gone years of living their own way, pursuing their own interests and desires, and Jesus comes into their life, there should be fruit of that. Not all at once. It’s not saying a person suddenly never has any areas where they struggle. It’s a process. We’ll talk more about that next week. But when the light of the gospel truly takes root in a person’s heart, it causes a change.

It’s like you suddenly see the world through a different set of eyes. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz where the story goes from sepia to color. And the reason why there are changes and sudden changes is again due to the Holy Spirit and the process of conversion. 

The Spirit enables us to follow God. 

We certainly see that idea in Ezekiel 36:27: And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules

It is the Spirit of God working in us which enables us to follow the will of God. When God works in a person’s life, and transforms a person to love him and love him and enables a person to follow his commands, that is miraculous. 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

That same Spirit who was in the beginning, part of creation, and who hovered over the waters dwells every single person who is a Christian and who believes in the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

How amazing is that! 

And it’s not because of us. It’s because our God is a good God. 

Consider Ezekiel 36:22: Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 

God’s works of grace are not because we were deserving. God ultimately makes grace available because of his character, because of his goodness, because of his faithfulness to the promises he had made, and for the sake of displaying his own divine glory and greatness. 

Yes, God loves us. But it’s not because we’re lovable but because God is loving. And so through the gospel, through the work of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven and justified. But what separates real faith, what separates the believers from the pretenders is regeneration. 

In his systematic theology, Louis Berkhoff says: 

“Regeneration consists in the implanting of the principle of the new spiritual life in man, in a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction.”

Numerous passages in the New Testament talk about the work that God does in the life of a believer. 

1 Corinthians 2:14-16: The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 

God works through us. We don’t regenerate ourselves. We don’t cause our own Spiritual growth. We participate in the work which God is doing in us but we don’t cause it. I hope that makes sense. 

In Philippians 2:13, Paul puts says: it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

God works in us. New birth, being born again changes a person. 

While it is through Christ that we are forgiven, justified, and given eternal life; we see that the Spirit is involved in bringing new life – specifically through cleansing us, through indwelling us, through causing a change in our heart, and by enabling us to live for God. 

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