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Regeneration: A glorious rear-view-mirror doctrine

In preaching through the Gospel of John, I recently came to John 3 and the statements Jesus said to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again. Here are a few observations I collected in my study of the doctrine of regeneration. (You can watch the sermons from the Gospel of John here.)

First, there is no biblical record of Jesus or His apostles using it as a means of mass evangelism, or even personal evangelism.

Nicodemus was a biblical scholar of the nation of Israel who had come to Jesus. And Jesus knew perfectly what was in Nicodemus and what he was trusting in for his salvation. The conversation in which Jesus uses the term born again (five times), quickly turns into a monologue and no more does Jesus mention the need to be born again. Rather, John’s record has Jesus drawing all of Nicodemus’ attention to His person – who Jesus is and what He will accomplish for those who believe who He is (3:11-21).

But back to the absence of ‘born again’ talk in evangelism. In this book written by John, as well as the three other Gospels, there is no record of Jesus speaking to other individuals or crowds about the necessity of being born again.

+ John 4:7 – To the Samaritan woman at well, Jesus speaks of living water.

+ John 4:50 –To the royal official, “Go your son lives…” No, “and by the way, you must be born again.”

+ John 5:6 – To the man in his sickness for 38 years – “Do you wish to get well?”

+ John 6:26 – To the crowd that followed him around the lake after He’d fed 5,000, Jesus spoke of being the bread of life who came down from heaven, but nothing about the need of a second birth.

+ John 9 – To the blind man from birth, Jesus said go wash in pool of Siloam… But no. “if you come back I’ll give you the secret on how to experience the second birth.”

In Matthew, Mark Luke, I’m not aware of Jesus using this language.

Second, neither is there a record of Jesus’ Apostles speaking of regeneration in evangelism. I cannot think of any other time this language is used in evangelistic settings. Calls to repentance, calls to believe, yes. But no sermons recorded in Acts, short or long, where the Apostles told crowds, large or small, that they must be born again.

Third, the terminology of regeneration is used as an explanation of why Christians became Christians.

The terminology of the new birth is used in letters to Christians, but is used as something having already happened to them. It is used to explain why they became believers.

+ James 1:18 – by the exercise of His will He brought us forth (same word as Jesus uses in John 3).

+ I Peter 1:3 – God has caused us to be born again (from same root as used in John 3).

+ I Peter 1:23 – “having been born again” (in the past, acted upon).

+ Titus 3:5 — He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…”

+ Ephesians 2:1-10 – God “made us alive” (vs. 5)

In First John, the apostle gives several ways one can have assurance of their own eternal life (5:13). And several times, Johns uses the term ‘born again’ in connection to one having eternal life. Let me refer you to two of them.

I John 2:29 – If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. Note, being righteous does not get a person born again. Rather, because one is born again, they practice righteousness. It’s like saying,  “A preacher who can lift a solid oak pulpit over his head is strong.” Lifting a solid oak pulpit does not make the preacher strong; rather, because he already is strong, he can lift 500 lbs. Because a person has already been born again, he practices righteousness.

I John 5:1 – Whoever believes (whoever presently believing) that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. Like 2:29, the Greek tense is very clear; having been begotten of God results in ongoing believing that Jesus is the Christ.

A rear view mirror doctrine – to the praise of the glory of God’s grace

Here is what the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states about being born again: “Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.”

Let me give an obvious comparison and a not-so obvious comparison that I find helpful in putting this truth in proper perspective.

The first is the conception and birth of a child. The conjoining of sperm and egg happens out of sight and yet is utterly necessary to life. The child is brought forth by the act of his parents; he has nothing to do with it, but he immediately enters into life. That hidden act of conception is enjoyed and marveled at later. So too the spiritual birth.

The not so obvious comparison is as follows: I own property up in the Colorado mountains. Every time I leave, there’s a certain place on the road back home I can look in my rear-view mirror and see the majesty of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The doctrine of regeneration is like that; it’s a ‘rear view mirror’ glimpse of what God has already done to bring dead sinners to spiritual life and salvation. Just as I contribute nothing to the splendor of the mountains, but enjoy their beauty and mystery, so too our having been born again is nothing we contribute to, but we forever enjoy the glory of what God has wrought!

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. – James 1:17-18