by Jeremiah Hill

We believe that, in order to be saved, sinners must be regenerated, or born again; that regeneration consists in giving a holy disposition to the mind; that it is effected in a manner above our comprehension by the power of the Holy Spirit, in connection with divine truth, so as to secure our voluntary obedience to the gospel; and that its proper evidence appears in the holy fruits of repentance, and faith, and newness of life.

The Nature of Regeneration

Regeneration tells us that God the Trinity is profoundly and personally interested in us. A lawyer springs the guilty free through crafty fact-bending, but even upright lawyers and judges dismiss the innocent upon the resolve of a case. God, upon our legal resolve and our being justified, does just the opposite. In salvation, God not only justifies us, he invades our very life and decisively changes us. It is not unheard of in Christianity today to reduce the gospel to legal-reckoning. This vitally important aspect of salvation can never be overlooked, but no one aspect of salvation can suffice to contain it all. God’s saving action is beautiful and manifold.

The first aspect of salvation which we actually experience is our being regenerated. In regeneration, we are ‘born-again’ (see John 3). This new life into which we are placed is more than just a new paradigm or perspective – it actually provides for us some measure of ability to do meaningful and worthwhile actions with our own two hands. However, this ‘new life’ in which we now live is no abstract form of spiritual batteries on which we now run. This power is the Holy Spirit himself as he indwells us and gives us the benefits of Jesus Christ. In the event of regeneration, we are given new life, namely the Holy Spirit, from which our new desires are shaped.

This event is also passive, in that it is solely brought about by God – an event in which we do not bring about by any effort of our own. That said, it is by no means a haphazard moment. God brings about salvation in the context of the preaching and hearing of Scripture. There is no formula for God to save other than his inscripturated-gospel message. Gospel preaching ushers in the Holy Spirit who regenerates our hearts and enables us to respond to the beckon of the preacher.

Many in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church espouse a kind of baptismal-regeneration by which the mark of our sinful nature is wiped clean (though not given much real content). Extended treatments of this can be found in many evangelical systematic theologies. Suffice it to say here that all theology is related. What you say about one part of theology will nearly always affect others. If one holds baptismal regeneration, the pressure is often to separate this event from the other events of salvation such as sanctification and justification. In Catholicism, justification is achieved through lifelong sanctification which is rooted in baptismal regeneration. While their doctrine of baptismal regeneration is not the cause of this mishap, it is a result of the underlying problems with a poorly constructed theological system.

The Regenerate Life

For every part of our human nature that experienced the effects of the fall (every part) there will be a reversal. This reversal begins in our regeneration. Our will, intellect, emotions, relationships, and moral compass are all torn and twisted. In the giving of new life, God begins the process of reparation to these. Lest we be discouraged that new life means a kind of explosive and fanatical response to the gospel, we must realize that the giving of new life does not mean we are perfect, but changed. In the process, we desire more and more the presence of God. We realize continually that God is our perfect Father and that he is for us. We love others more intensely and feel rancor less powerfully. We begin to care for others and feel around us the immensity of evil in the world. Note Paul’s list in Galatians 5 and the context in which each of these fruits will be expressed. He touches on nearly every part of our life in this short list. This is the effect of the Spirit, the reformation of our soul. Yet we do continue in a kind of duality. Though the stain of sin has been lifted, brash and stupid desires remain within us. In this vein Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom 7:24)?

It would be a mistake for us here to observe the moral compasses of unbelievers and compare them with our own. We do much damage by discouraging ourselves as we sink into nail-biting fits of comparison. We are, every one of us, a work in progress. Regeneration is not about being made moral, it is about being the recipient of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our sights are not to be held on moral impeccability but on knowing and cherishing Christ more. What regeneration helps us see is that the Christian life is not about grasping God more, but being grasped by God more. Though our regeneration and new life is given decisively, the Spirit continually wreaks fruit within us.

Select Bibliography

Saved by Grace – Hoekema

The Cross and Salvation – Demarest

Theology for the Church – Akin

Institutes 3.3 – Calvin