Theology Corner

Addressing commonly asked questions about Christianity from the perspective of a non-theologian

39. WHAT IS REGENERATION?

Each person who responds to God’s grace (Titus 2:11) and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ (Rom 5:8; 1 John 2:2) by confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience instantly receives the great gift of salvation.  This gift includes but is not limited to the following:

 

  • Redemption (Rom 3:24; 8:23) - You are freed from the bondage of sin for the first time in your life.
  • Forgiveness (Mat 6:9-15; 1 John 1:8-10) – You are forgiven your sins by God.
  • Justification (Rom 3:21-26) – You are declared righteous by God; this legal declaration is valid because Christ died to pay the penalty for your sin and lived a life of perfect righteousness that can in turn be imputed to you.
  • Adoption (Rom 3:23; Gal 3:26; 1 John 3:2) – You are a joint heir with Jesus to the Kingdom of God.
  • Regeneration (John 3:1-21) - The Holy Spirit makes known to you the will of God and helps you discern truth from lie.  He occupies and purifies all the rooms of your heart into which He is invited.  For the first time in your life you are not a prisoner of sin.  You are free to pursue the path of righteousness.  This is the first day of your Christian life and you are a new creature in Christ.  This is the mechanism of your redemption.
  • Sanctification (Heb 6:1; 1 Pet 1:13-16) - You are led by the Holy Spirit along the path toward holiness; this is a lifetime journey.
  • Reconciliation (Eph 2:11-22) - You are reconciled with all other believers.
  • Unification (Eph 3:1-11) – You are united with all believers in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • Glorification (Rom 8:30) – You will complete the journey along the path of sanctification when your mission in this life is done.

 

This section addresses the concept of regeneration.

 

The actual word for regeneration occurs only twice in the New Testament (Mat 19:28; Titus 3:5).  It means “to be again” and could therefore be used to describe a rebirth as in John 3:3, 5, 7 and 1 Peter 1:23.  Regeneration is the change which God works in the soul when He brings it to life, when He raises it from the death of sin to a life of pursuing righteousness.  Regeneration is the starting point in the pursuit of holiness.  So let’s take a step back and review the meaning of holiness.

Holiness is the attribute of God which permeates all other attributes.  It is the state of who He is and the act of what He does; it is absolute purity of will, intellect, heart and action.  Certain words such as love, integrity, righteousness, sanctification, morality, ethics and character, have no meaning aside from the holiness of God.  Holiness makes God perfect in being, wisdom, power, justice, goodness and truth.

Since man is created in God’s image, every human possesses a soul comprising a will, intellect and heart and every human is capable of action.  As with God, holiness in man is both state and act.  My state is holy if my will, intellect and heart conform respectively to the will, intellect and heart of God.  My acts are holy if they flow from a holy state and are the acts God would do in my place.

Sin is all things not holy.  The state of my will, intellect and heart is either holy or sinful; my acts are either holy or sinful.  The intersection of sin and holiness is the null or empty set.  Holiness and sin are disjoint sets or mutually exclusive events in the sample space of all possible states and actions.

Although much of reality is part of a causal chain, God does not determine my free will decisions and I will not always select the path of holiness.  Also, my intellect is finite, my wisdom is flawed and I am fully capable of justifying sin by logic and reason.  Finally, my human heart is deceitfully wicked and cannot be trusted (Gen 6:5; Ps 14:1; Prov 12:15, 14:12, 20:9; Isa 32:6; Jer 17:9; Mat 15:19; Mark 7:21; John 5:42; Acts 28:27).  Given my flawed human soul, how can I ever hope to be holy?

The key that unlocks this mystery is a recognition that I cannot hope to be holy unless the Spirit of God occupies and purifies my will, my intellect and my heart.  I cannot lift myself up by my own bootstraps and become holy in the absence of the Holy Spirit.  Prior to my salvation, the Holy Spirit relentlessly exercises His prevenient grace to call, awaken, draw near, convict, save and empower.  He leads me from one step to another as He finds response in my heart and disposition to obedience.  After salvation, the Holy Spirit wants to occupy and purify every room of my heart, make known to me the will of God, help me discern the truth, be Lord of my life and keep me on the path of repentance, faith and obedience.  But the Holy Spirit will never force Himself on me.  I can, for example, tell Him that certain rooms of my heart are “off limits” to Him and He will comply.  Of course, my progress along the path of sanctification will cease at that point and the Holy Spirit will allow me to experience the consequences of my rebellion in this life.

My personal journey along the path of Holiness begins when God convicts me that my heart is as black as a lump of coal and when that realization causes me to feel great remorse.  I then request an audience with God and say something like: “Almighty God, I come into Your presence confessing my sin nature and behavior, having remorse in my heart, wanting to repent, asking for Your mercy, receiving from You the far greater gift of salvation and believing I am saved by faith, the grace of God and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.”  God responds by giving me the great gift of salvation.  Part of this gift is the regeneration or initial sanctification of my soul.  By this gift, the Holy Spirit begins to reveal the will of God and helps me discern truth from lie.  He occupies and purifies all the rooms of my heart into which He is invited.  For the first time in my life I am not a prisoner of sin.  I am free to pursue the path of righteousness.  This is the first day of my Christian life.  This new life is a daily dying to sin and living to pursue righteousness; it constitutes a life of repentance, faith and obedience continually reaffirmed and renewed.  It means allowing my will and intellect to become increasingly aligned with the will and intellect of God.  It means letting the Holy Spirit occupy and purify an increasing number of rooms in my heart.  It means works of Christian love flow increasingly from a heart that loves God and loves my neighbor. 

This Section on regeneration could be ended at this point except for one thing.  Calvinist doctrine, characteristic of the Reformed Church, completely rejects the order and method of salvation described herein.  Some commentary on this dichotomy is warrented.   

 

Traditional Southern Baptist, Wesleyan/Arminian Position on Salvation

 

Salvation is an astounding, unmerited gift of God and is, therefore, an example of grace.  But how do you get to that point in time when you are ready to receive this great gift of salvation?  What would cause you to engage in confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience?  The answer is the grace of God that comes before salvation.

God is the overwhelmingly dominant player in the synergistic effort to save your soul.  He tosses a life preserver into the raging waters of life, pushes you to within arm’s length and urges you to stretch out your hand and take hold.  God’s part is called Prevenient Grace which means the grace that brings salvation.  The word prevenient derives from pre (before) and venio (come).  God attempts to call, awaken, draw near, convict, save and empower every person who will ever live including you.  He initiates, advances and perfects every good thing in your heart, intellect and will.  He leads you from one step to another as he finds response in your heart and disposition to obedience.  Some men allow God to quicken, assist and nudge their free will to facilitate confession of sin, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience so they may receive the great gift of salvation (1 Pet 1:9). Other men choose to resist and reject the grace of God (2 Thes 1:8-9).

The Prevenient Grace of God has many faces but the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all persons (Titus 2:11):

 

  • The requirements of the law are written by God on every heart (Rom. 2:15),
  • Jesus Christ knocks at the door of every heart (Rev. 3:20),
  • The Holy Spirit calls and convicts each person (John 16:8) and
  • God's eternal power and divine nature are evident in the world around us (Rom 1:20).

 

But nevertheless, many resist the grace of God (Mat 25:46; 2 Thes 1:8-9).  Only by the Prevenient Grace of God is it possible for you to receive the great gift of salvation.

 

Reformed Position on Salvation

 

Christians in the Reformed tradition reject Prevenient Grace as the action of God that makes salvation accessible to men.  First, the possibility that you might resist the grace of God, by rejecting His gift, would make God a potential failure.  It would mean God’s will could be thwarted.  God says, “I want to give you this gift” and you say, “I’m not accepting it!”  In truth, God’s will is thwarted every day of our lives.  See Section 2 of Theology Corner under the title, “Can God’s Will be Thwarted?”  Second, the fact that you must respond to the gift of Prevenient Grace by confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience means you are saved by a work in conflict with the clear teaching of Scripture (Eph 2:8-10).  In truth, Scripture never describes the acceptance of a gift from God as a work.

To fix these non-existent problems, Calvinists tinker with the order of salvation.  Christians in the Reformed tradition believe God first causes you to receive the gift of salvation and then you subsequently experience confession, remorse, repentance, faith and obedience.  In other words, the Calvinist reverses the order from that of the Traditional Southern Baptist, Wesleyan/Arminian.  Salvation simply appears one day like an unexpected, mysterious package delivered to your door by UPS, a package that causes you to suddenly confess your sins with remorse in your heart, repent, believe in Jesus Christ and seek obedience to his guidance?  Reformed theology teaches that because of the corrupt moral bondage of the un-regenerated sinner, man cannot have faith until he is changed internally by the monergistic work of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is regeneration’s fruit, not its cause.

Another perspective is that, before the creation of the universe, God placed you in one of two mathematical sets: elect or reprobate.  If you happened to end up in the reprobate set, you will live out your life in abject futility.  You might participate faithfully in church activities or even dedicate your life to Christian service.  It doesn’t matter!  You will never receive the gift of salvation. You were doomed to eternal damnation before you were born.  Conversely, if God placed you in the elect set, then, at some point in your life, God will simply regenerate you by the power of the Holy Spirit and you will subsequently demonstrate repentance, faith and obedience.  You will be saved with no requirement from you whatsoever!  The insidious doctrine of Calvinism is more fully addressed in Section 2 of Theology Corner under the title, "Can God's Will be Thwarted?"