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REGENERATION

 

 

Rock Solid: Men of Truth, pp.40-43 (Good Book Company / Christian Conventions, 2004)

 

This is slightly fuller than the published version.

 

 

Regeneration by God the Holy Spirit

 

 

Ten Questions

 

1.              What's the problem?

 

Why are things not as they should be in my life?   Very broadly, the answers to that question fall into two categories. 

 

Many think that things are in such a mess because of what's "out there".  The environment is the problem, other people are the problem, things that have happened to me or been done to me are the problem.  And, ultimately, that means that the world's mess is God's fault because he is the one who sets the conditions in which we operate. Way back, bad old God refused us access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And whether it is a poor education system, the dreadful childhood I had, insufficient fluoride in the water, the wrong party in government, too many additives in my food, my over-busyness or my lack of money, the real reason why things are not as they should be in my life lies outside of myself.

 

Others - and they are certainly in a minority - believe that the reason that things are not as they should be in their lives lies within themselves.  The problem, as Jesus puts it, is not what enters the body from the outside but the corruption of the human heart.  I am a bad tree and an evil treasure and so I produce bad fruit and bring forth evil.  I am hostile to God and so I do not submit to his law. (See Matthew 15.10-20; 12.33-35;  Romans 8.7-8).

 

 

2.             What's the solution?

 

Rather obviously, these two schools of thought - the "don't blame me: the problem's out there" school and the "my biggest problem is me" school offer radically different solutions.

 

If you locate the problems of the human race or of the human individual in what's "out there" then you recommend punitive action against the wicked external forces who have messed up your life and place your hope in external change.  You'll put your trust in princes, political programmes, new methods of education, economic growth, technological advance, different diets or one of a million other "saviours" promising a problem-free and risk-free life while leaving your "heart" untouched.

 

On the other hand, if the problem of the human race and the human individual is an inside problem then the solution can only be found in inward renewal and deep personal change. If we could change the tree from bad to good, the treasure from evil to righteous and the individual's attitude from hatred for God to love of God then we'd really be getting somewhere. 

 

 

3.             How can this happen?

 

That's nice then. All we need is to find a way of acquiring or achieving radical inward renewal which changes the deepest level of the human person from being a child of Satan with a satanic nature to being a child of God with a godly nature (John 8.12-59).  Just a 180 degree turn around of core identity and of spiritual orientation. In order to get rid of sin I merely need to stop being a sinner by nature.

 

That's all !   But it's obvious, isn't it, that this is beyond the moral endeavours of already sinful human beings.  To ask the sinner to bring about deep inward moral and spiritual change in himself is to ask a barefoot Sumo wrestler to pull himself up by his bootstraps, an Everton fan to join the Kop singing, "You'll never walk alone", or - more biblically - the leopard to change his spots or the Ethiopian to change the colour of his skin (Jeremiah 13.23).

 

No, the only way that the corruption of the sinner's nature will be dealt with is if God the creator-redeemer steps in. The God who gave life to human beings in the first place by breathing into dust must breathe a second time by his life-giving Spirit to bring about a new creation, a new human being (Genesis 2.7,  John 20.21-3; Romans 8.9).  When it comes to killing germs or refreshing unreached parts, nothing in all creation compares with the uncreated and sovereign Spirit of almighty God.

 

 

4.             What goes on?

 

Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon is described in many different ways in the Bible.  Here are three of the most powerful ways of talking about the deep inward change of the sinner's nature which God the Holy Spirit sovereignly brings about:

 

  • the sinner is joined by the work of the Spirit to the Life of Jesus and so becomes a new creation - John 20;  Ephesians 2.10;  2 Corinthians 5.17
  • the sinner as corrupt is dead but the Spirit, who is the personal power of the resurrection of Jesus, raises him from the dead - a spiritual resurrection takes place - Ephesians 1.18 - 2.10, Romans 6.1-11, 8.1-11
  • the sinner needs a new heart and a whole new start and by the action of the Spirit, he is granted new birth or birth from above - John 3.1-8, 1 Peter 1.3, 23,  James 1.18

 

 

5.             On what basis?

 

What these images make abundantly clear is this simple fact: the inward renewal and new spiritual start which is regeneration is an act of God's sovereign grace.  How could what does not exist bring itself into existence (new creation)? Whenever did a dead person raise himself or a child bring about his own birth?  The grace of God is the explanation for the gift of regeneration.  And like all the saving grace of God it is for the sake of and in union with the risen Lord Jesus Christ that it happens. (I Peter 1.3)  As we saw in Ephesians 1-2, it is by bringing us into contact or union with the Life of Jesus that the Spirit makes us to share in his resurrection. (See also Romans 6.1-11 and 8.9-11)

 

 

6.             By what means?

 

From the creation of the world, God has been doing his work by Word and Spirit. And so it is that the regenerating act of God the Holy Spirit, though it is deep, secret, inaccessible, sovereign and gracious, is done by means of the Word of God.  Just as in the very words "stretch out your hand" Jesus communicated healing and strengthening power to the man with the withered arm (Mark 3.5), and just as in the very words "Lazarus, come out"  Jesus communicated life to the dead man in the tomb (John 11.43), so it is by the life-giving Word of the Gospel breathed into by the Spirit that the spiritually dead are raised and spiritual rebirth happens. (James 1.18,  1 Peter 1.23).

 

 

7.             How does it feel?

 

How did it feel to be born?   How did it feel for creation to be created?   How did it feel to be reconstructed under anaesthetic after the appalling accident you suffered?     We don't know these things.  And nor is there an experience with its own set of feelings which the Bible labels "regeneration".   Massive things take place, huge changes are brought about, a person's whole identity is transformed and yet this is a deep work of the Spirit rather than a particularly felt experience of the human subject.

 

 

8.             How does it show?

 

Jesus tells Nicodemus, "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 3.8).   Though the inward renewal of regeneration is not a felt experience, it certainly leads to a most profound and visible change.  The tree has changed and so the fruit does too.  The heart has changed and so too does what comes out of it. The orientation has changed and so too does the direction in which the person is walking.

 

The first - immediate, inevitable, inseparable - fruit that a person's whole nature has been renewed is in his penitent and believing acceptance of the gospel news which God has used to communicate life to him.  It's pointless trying to separate the moment of regeneration from the moment (if there is a "moment") of repentance and faith but we should certainly recognise that only by a sovereign renewal of a sinner's nature will the one who hated God (Romans 8.7) and could not come to Jesus (John 6.65) actually repent and believe.

 

But the new-born human now has a whole new set of attitudes too.  His attitude to Christ is utterly different - Christ is now everything to him.  His desires and emotions, his perspectives and associations, his hopes and fears and ambitions - all have changed.  "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come."  (2 Corinthians 5.17)

 

 

9.             How long does it take?

 

The act of regeneration cannot be timed.  The outworking of regeneration lasts a lifetime.  This new creation, this new-born person must grow up and become increasingly true to his transformed core identity as a lover of God.  This will involve putting to death the ways and words which belonged to his dead, old self and yet which are hanging over like the stench left by the previous occupant of a house.  And it will involve the deliberate cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit, the graces of the Christian disciple, the evidences that the tree is now good.  Sometimes, therefore, Christian writers have referred to this whole lifelong process of moral and spiritual renewal as regeneration.  Usually, however, it is the no-help-needed, Spirit-given, deep-down, by-the-Word once-off start of this process by the recreation and powerful cleansing of the human heart that  is referred to as regeneration.

 

 

10.         What does it all mean?

 

It means everything. It's the difference between being welcomed into the new heavens and new earth (where nothing that defiles is allowed - Revelation 21.27) and being sent to hell (where the filth of the universe collects).  It's the difference between being a true and proper human being in union with Jesus Christ, the one True Man, and being a distortion of, an apology for, the dregs and shadow of a human being.  By God's work of regeneration, normal service begins to be resumed in the life of a man. And as for its implications, they tumble over themselves with mind-bending and life-transforming richness.  When we understand the Bible's teaching on regeneration,

 

·          we understand what is wrong with the world and how to put it right - the human heart is what is wrong and a divine intervention to renew it in union with Jesus Christ is what is needed;

·          we give all praise to God for our salvation realising that we had as much to do with it as we did with our birth  (1 Peter 1.3)

·          we recognise that God is passionately opposed to sin in every way and that the free forgiveness which we receive on the basis of the work of Christ is always accompanied by a deep cleansing of the corruption of the human heart;

·          we delight in the fact that the people of God are "saints" which means "those who have been cleaned up so that they have access to the sanctuary" (Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2);

·          we marvel that, as those who have experienced inward renewal, Christians are fit dwelling-places for God by his Spirit  (1 Corinthians 3.16, 6.19,  Ephesians 2.21-22, 5.18);

·          we see the centrality of the Word of God in the accomplishment of his purposes as the means by which  he both gives new life to the dead and shapes and cultivates that new life in the Christian disciple  (John 6.63, 68,  Colossians 3.16, 2 Timothy 3.16-17);

·          we recognise that those who look at the freeness of forgiveness and conclude that God is unconcerned with the state of our hearts and lives could not be more wrong - the people whom God freely forgives are always and exactly the same people whom he radically renews by the Spirit  (Romans 6);

·          we acknowledge the Spirit as giver of life and live with a profound dependence on and gratitude to him (Galatians 5.25);

·          on the basis of what has happened to our spirit we have hope for the renewal of our bodies and on the basis of what will happen to our bodies we hope for the regeneration of the universe too (Romans 8.11, 20-25;   Matthew 19.28)

 

Conclusion:

 

"Regeneration by the Holy Spirit": out of the sheer grace of God, the Holy Spirit (who is the personal power of the resurrection of Jesus) intervenes in a sovereign initiative to raise the spiritually dead, giving them a new birth and making them a new creation by a radical and profound transformation of the core of their persons which is altogether his work. United to the Life of Jesus Christ, their whole orientation is changed, their essential nature moves from that of God-haters to that of God-lovers and this instant and secret recreation then bears fruit in lifelong moral and spiritual renewal.  The cynic tells us, "Get a life". The Spirit announces, "And now for something completely different".  And we wake up spiritually and cheerfully announce, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore".

 

 

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Bible Study:  James 1.1-27

  1. How and why can troubles be an occasion for rejoicing?  vv 2-4
  2. Where and how can you get the ability to “see things God’s way” (= wisdom)?  vv5-8
  3. Explain how “what’s inside” not “what’s outside” counts for most in vv9-12
  4. Where do “sin-babies” not come from, where do they come from, what do they grow into, and how does this affect our attitude to God and to ourselves?  vv13-15
  5. So, bad comes from us and good comes from God.  What is the good that comes from God in vv16-18 and how is it not only a contrast to but a cure of the bad in us?
  6. What is the part of the “word of truth” in the new birth in v.18 (see also I Peter 1.23 – 2.3) and how does this affect our ongoing relationship with the word – vv 19-25?
  7. What are the visible evidences that the new birth makes a person like their “Father”? – vv26-27

 

 

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To discuss:

 

  1. Identify and explore some of the leading false gospels of our day (i.e. answers to the double question: “What is wrong with the world and how can it be put right?”). Categorize them into those which emphasize “things out there” and those which emphasize “things in here”. Contrast them with the true Gospel.

 

  1. How, in particular, does the Bible’s teaching about regeneration keep us from putting our trust for sorting out the world in better education or in political programmes (two of the favourite false gospels of our day)?

 

  1. If the new birth is an act of the sovereign initiative of God, what’s the point of talking about it since it’s beyond our control and influence?

 

  1. How would you respond to the comment: “When it boils down to it, Christians aren’t, person for person, any better human beings than non-Christians – this talk of deep, inner renewal is a nice story and nothing more”?

 

  1. What’s helpful and what’s not helpful about some Christians being referred to as “born-again” Christians?

 

  1. Show how the Bible’s teaching about regeneration can be used to refute these (diametrically opposite) errors about God’s grace:

a)      “the heart of being a Christian is trying to behave according to the moral teaching of Jesus”

b)      “the heart of being a Christian is a deep, invisible, spiritual experience – emphasis on behaviour is just moralism”

 

  1. How, if at all, should a person try to establish that he has been born again?

 

 

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Relating this chapter to the chapter on justification:

 

The mess that sin has made of the world goes deep and spreads wide.  In particular, the sinner finds himself with two huge problems. 

 

The first of these has been explored in the chapter on justification, namely, the sinner's legal status as guilty on the basis of the almost countless ways in which he has failed to love God with his whole being and love his neighbour as himself.   Blessedly, this problem is dealt with through the death of Jesus in place of sinners and by the judicial declaration of God who pardons all who believe in Jesus and announces that he is perfectly satisfied with them for the sake of Jesus. Their status is changed.

 

All things considered, however, there's not much comfort for a condemned criminal in being granted an unexpected and total pardon by the King if he is also suffering from a vile disease that will kill him within days and which requires his isolation from all good company in any case.

 

And this points to the other massive problem for the sinner.  He not only has a guilty status, he suffers from a foul and terminal disease, that is, he has a corrupt nature. He not only needs forgiveness for his transgressions, he also needs inward renewal from his corruption. The death of Jesus in his place deals with the punishment which was otherwise coming to the sinner.  But the Holy Spirit, who is the resurrection power of Jesus, deals with the depravity, the suppression of truth, the misdirected desires, the false valuations, the impure passions, the ungodly emotions - in short, the fouled-up nature of the sinner.

 

The chapter on justification dealt with the issue of a legal status of guilty. This chapter deals with the issue of a sinful inward nature which is corrupt.