For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
The churches' websites includes recorded sermons for those who are interested. Click the links below to access them.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Understanding the Gospel - Part 5: Regeneration

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God," said Jesus to a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus (John 3:3). It was a confusing and mysterious statement. What does it mean? Nicodemus was confused, and we probably would be, too.

Jesus' explanation is just as mysterious. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:5-8).

Nicodemus was still confused. So Jesus explained further that he was going to die, and that everyone who believed in him would have eternal life (John 3:14-16). So there is a connection between believing in Jesus and his death for our sins and being born again by the Spirit of God.

But what is this connection? Does a person believe and then be born again? Or does a person believe as the result of being born again? It is a question that has been discussed for two thousand years. Trained and dedicated scholars carefully defend each position. While at times the debate grows heated, in general those in both camps acknowledge that the other camp is on the road to heaven "even with their goofy theology."

What does it mean to be born again?

It is not something that we do. It is something that happens to us. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, the Lord promises that there will be a time when he will replace our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.  We cannot replace our heart. Only God can do that! In John 1:13 we read that the children of God were born of God and not by human effort or desire. God caused us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3).

It is something that happens only once. Physically we are only born once. It is the same spiritually. We can't "get born again" over and over again.

It results in the spiritually dead person becoming alive. This does not mean that a person becomes "spiritual" in the sense of being open to the spiritual influences because even the spiritually dead can relate to the demonic. It means that the person who was dead to God is made alive and has a  relationship with God through Christ. But it is not simply our spiritual selves that become new, for 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that we are new creations.

How does it happen?

This is a mystery and even if we could solve it, we would be unable to replicate it like a scientist in the laboratory. Regeneration is something that God does. It appears the Holy Spirit is particularly involved (John 3:8) in causing it, although we can also say that the Father is also involved (James 1:17-18), and it all is possible because of Christ (Eph 2:5). So it is a work of God.

It is clear that God uses the word of the gospel to bring about regeneration. 1 Peter 1:23-25 tells us that we were born anew "through the living and abiding word of God." James tells us that God gave us new birth through "the word of truth" (James 1:18). This is one crucial reason why simply "living the faith" is not enough to see people come to faith. They need to hear the gospel message because God uses the Word in the process of regeneration.

Consider a couple of examples:

In Acts 16 we read of Paul going to Philippi and sharing the gospel. Among the people gathered there was a woman from Thyatira named Lydia. Luke tells us that "the Lord opened her heart" to pay attention to what Paul was teaching (Acts 16:14). The term "pay attention" is better translated "respond to," or "heed." In other words, it was the Lord who caused Lydia to respond to the gospel message. We see that this is the proper sense as we read in the next verse that she was baptized.

Or consider Paul. We know that he had heard the message of the gospel because he was there listening to Stephen before he was murdered (Acts 7:58-8:1). He did not respond to the gospel message then. In fact, he rejected it wholeheartedly and began to persecute the church.  It wasn't long though before God worked a miracle in his life by appearing to him on the road to Damascus. God overcame every objection that Paul could raise and Paul became a radical follower of Christ (Acts 9:1-19).

In one case the process was dramatic but in the other case it was much more subtle. In both cases, it was God who worked decisively in the person's life. Without the Lord working in the person's life, the gospel message falls on deaf ears and hearts of stone. It has no effect.

In each of these cases, the Holy Spirit so worked in their lives that every barrier to belief was removed. Did Paul make a decision to follow Christ? Yes. But at the same time, it must be pointed out that his decision was an obvious one. It is the same with Lydia. Or consider the many Bereans that came to faith as they listened to the gospel and studied the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12). In the case of every believer, God has overcome the barriers to belief and has drawn the sinner to himself. They found his grace to be irresistible.

This process will always involve the conviction of sin leading to repentance and belief in Christ as Saviour, Redeemer, and Lord. We see people repent and confess Christ, but regeneration itself is unseen. It produces fruit over time, but the actual moment of being born again is hidden from sight. As a result, theologians have disagreed about whether regeneration comes before or after saving faith.

There are strong biblicial and theological cases to be made for each position and each position has some problems. In the end, I think that the balance tilts slightly in favor of regeneration coming before saving faith, but the issue is far from certain and we must not allow the issue to become one of division between Christians. Charles Spurgeon (who held the regeneration first position) is a good example of charity towards those who hold a different opinion on this doctrine. He once said that if there were to be an expansion of the number of the apostles he would nominate John Wesley even though Wesley thought regeneration came after belief.

Two practical points:

We must present the gospel message clearly and compellingly to other people. This includes calling them to repent and believe. We can do this knowing that we are planting seeds and some of those seeds will germinate by the power of the Holy Spirit and produce followers of Christ. This is what we see in the book of Acts. It was their practice to share the gospel wherever they went (Acts 8:1-4) and as many as were appointed to salvation believed (Acts 13:48).

At the same time, consider the wonder of your own salvation. You were dead and God made you alive in Christ. There is no boasting in our salvation. It is a work of God's grace poured out on you (Ephesians 2:8-10). So worship is the proper response when we gaze into the mysteries of regeneration.

" God will not hold us responsible to understand the mysteries of election, predestination, and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these truths is to raise our eyes to God and in deepest reverence say, "0 Lord, Thou knowest." Those things belong to the deep and mysterious profound of God's omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will never make saints."

A.W. Tozer

For an excellent but deep discussion of the issues involved, I recommend the following books:
Chosen but Free: A Balanced View... by Norman Geisler. and The Potter's Freedom by James White. The two authors interact with one another in a helpful way.

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