When Was I Born Again? How ‘Regeneration’ Blossoms in Reformed Theology – David Mathis

The curious man came at night, under the cloak of darkness.

By and large, the masses may have been missing the significance of Jesus’s miracles, but Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews,” was catching on. “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” he recognized. He was beginning to understand. These visible signs Jesus performed were designed to open ears to the words he spoke. “You are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2).

Now, the great teacher stunned him with a doctrine the learned Pharisee could have known from his own Hebrew Scriptures: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Regeneration or new birth, we call it. Physical, human birth, “of water,” is not enough to see Jesus’s kingdom. You need spiritual birth, to be “born of the Spirit”:

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. (John 3:5–6)

Long before born-again became a popular adjective, Jesus called for new birth in this famous late-night encounter. Not many of us today will be as stumped as Nicodemus was that night, but we may still scratch our heads, especially those of us who call ourselves “Reformed” and (rightly) take so many of our theological cues from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Romans and the Reformed Road

In broad strokes, Romans moves from human depravity (1:18–3:20), to the wonder of justification by faith alone (3:21–5:21), to the everyday experience of the Christian life and the lifelong process of sanctification by the Spirit (6:1–8:39). The famous “golden chain” of Romans 8:29–30 lays out the marvelous, unbroken sequence of God’s care for his chosen people from eternity past to eternity future:

those whom he foreknew he also predestined . . . . And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Foreknowledge, predestination, effectual calling, justification, and glorification — and we may pause to ask about sanctification. But in Nicodemus-like fashion, might we forget to even ask about regeneration?

As J.I. Packer wrote in 2009, “Regeneration, or new birth, meaning simply the new you through, with, in, and under Christ, is a largely neglected theme today.” That neglect, says D.A. Carson, may have been “owing in part to several decades of dispute over justification and how a person is set right with God.” Carson continues,

We have tended to neglect another component of conversion no less important. Conversion under the terms of the new covenant is more than a matter of position and status in Christ, though never less: it includes miraculous Spirit-given transformation, something immeasurably beyond mere human resolution. It is new birth; it makes us new creatures; it demonstrates that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. All the creedal orthodoxy in the world cannot replace it.

How then does regeneration relate to our often-rehearsed “order of salvation” (Latin ordo salutis), which lays out the precious array of saving graces that are ours in Christ? How do we who love the Reformed emphasis on justification (and sanctification) think about the essential grace of the new birth, with the balance and health it brings to the whole of our theology?

New Life in the Soul

First of all, we don’t blame Paul if regeneration occupies too small a place in our thinking. After all, we clearly find the concept of new, God-given spiritual life elsewhere in his letters.

In his greatly celebrated lines to the Ephesians, he moves from human depravity (2:1–3) to God himself taking the initiative to “ma[k]e us alive together with Christ” (2:4–5), which then issues in the faith (2:8) through which Christ’s people are saved. And memorably in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul exclaims, literally, “If anyone is in Christ — new creation!” Paul also rehearses this new creation in us in Galatians 6:15 and in “the washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, James draws on new-birth imagery in saying of believers that God, of his own will, “brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Peter too, echoing the accent on divine initiative, praises God the Father as the one who “has caused us to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3). Like James, Peter also mentions the eye-opening word, the gospel, through which God works: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).

This “new birth” — essential, as Jesus says, to seeing his kingdom — comes through the action of the Spirit, working with and through the gospel word. It is not self-wrought, or merely cerebral, or even temporary. And unlike foreknowledge and predestination, the new birth happens in us. We experience it as we come to life, spiritually, and have faith in Jesus. Regeneration is God’s initiative and decisive work, and yet we participate in it, as our once-dead spirit revives and we believe.

No Lapse in Time

Addressing the topic of regeneration as it relates to justification and sanctification, we learn to recognize various kinds of order in the order of salvation. Foreknowledge and predestination clearly occur prior to the application, in time, of God’s saving grace to his elect through faith. Here we might speak of temporal order in a way we would not in distinguishing among the bounty of graces later applied to the sinner through faith (justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification).

Fresh emphasis on regeneration can be instructive because the new birth, in particular, focuses on the reality of God’s initiative and work in giving new spiritual life to the soul, which issues immediately and instantaneously in faith. In other words, there is no time lapse between God’s regenerating work and our experience of faith. It’s like opening an eye. No time lapses between the lid parting and light streaming in.

Yet there is a logical order to salvation, simultaneous as the actions may be. Opening the eye “causes” the light to stream in. Anthony Hoekema calls this “causal priority”:

When a person receives new spiritual life, he or she immediately begins to believe. Perhaps the best way to put it is to affirm that regeneration has causal priority over the other aspects of the process of salvation: faith, repentance, sanctification, and the like. . . . It is to be understood that these aspects of the process of salvation occur not successively but simultaneously. Though regeneration has causal priority over the other aspects, it has no chronological priority. (Saved by Grace, 14, 17)

God’s Initiative

Hoekema’s observation accents the special place of regeneration as being the work of God that immediately brings about the faith in us through which the full treasury of Christ’s blessings comes to us.

Regeneration serves an essential function because we are born in sin, physically alive but spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1, 5). Naturally, we may have been able to believe (no physical obstacles), but morally, in our depravity, we were utterly unable. In the new birth, God acts to make us alive (Ephesians 2:5); he gives life to the dead heart and calls into existence the saving faith that did not exist until his call. He acts in the new birth to enable (and assure) our acting in faith.

With this in view, 1 John 5:1 says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” Father here is not the typical Greek word for father (patēr) but “the Begetter” (“the one who begot,” ton gennēsanta). Believers receive new spiritual life from God the Father who gives life through the gospel of God the Son, by the work of God the Spirit. And this new birth shifts our loves: first, for our Begetter himself, and then for all whom he has begotten. The heart of regeneration is a new heart that delights in our Father and his Son, and loves our brothers and sisters in him.

Our Awakening

With regeneration, then, we also recognize the special place of faith. God’s work in the new birth produces (again, with no time lapse) our experience of saving faith, and saving faith serves as the instrument of our receiving God’s bounty of grace in Christ through the Spirit.

This connection between regeneration and saving faith, as simultaneous cause and effect, contributes to an understanding of what saving faith is (and is not). In other words, the nature of new birth determines the nature of saving faith. According to John Piper, “The very nature of the new birth that causes the sight of the treasure of Christ determines the nature of the faith it creates — namely, a treasuring of the treasure of the glory of Christ.” Therefore, “A shift of loves is at the root of saving faith.” God causes us to be born again, and we participate in the new birth by receiving Christ with joy, not with apathy or indifference.

Such faith unites us to Christ and is the occasion for his bounty of benefits becoming ours both instantaneously and progressively, both reckoned immediately and realized over time. The treasury of graces — justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification, and more — is applied to us with both already and not-yet aspects, in various ways in the differing graces.

Jesus’s Honor

So, God’s initiative of regeneration issues in our saving faith and brings us into union with the Son, in whom we experience the already and eternal cascading of divine grace to his glory.

As we pull apart and trace these threads of salvation, Sinclair Ferguson cautions us that “the traditional ordo salutis runs the danger of displacing Christ from the central place in soteriology” (The Holy Spirit, 99). Each aspect of saving grace was not only secured by Christ, but comes to us only in living relationship with him. Each grace is first true of the God-man, and then communicated to us in union with him by faith.

Jesus is “the righteous” (1 John 2:1) in whom we are justified, and will be publicly vindicated. He is “the Holy One” (1 John 2:20; Revelation 3:7; 16:5) in whom we are holy in status and become holy in practice. He is the Beloved and uniquely begotten Son (John 1:14; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), in whom we received adoption as sons and will come into greater fullness. And he is the glorious one in whom we receive degrees of glory now and have the promise of full glory to come. And so, says Ferguson, “We cannot think of, or enjoy, the blessings of the gospel either isolated from each other or separated from the Benefactor himself” (102).

It was Christ himself who told Nicodemus, and us, “You must be born again.” And when the Father acts, by the Spirit, through the gospel of his Son, to open the eyes of our hearts and delight in him, he is greatly magnified in the saving of sinners.

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