How You Can(‘t) Be Born Again

Regeneration is the act of God whereby he completely he changes the will of man such that he will hear, believe, and obey the word of God, beginning with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a spiritual change in the heart of man that makes him fundamentally and permanently different than he has ever been in his orientation towards God. It is part of God’s work in salvation, as both a benefit and a requirement of a citizen of the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Regeneration is described in Scripture by various terms. The first is the word itself, regeneration, which is used to describe a future time in which God will completely transform the earth and establish his Messianic Kingdom in direct earthly rule by Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:28). It is also, however, used to describe the means by which God saves someone according to his mercy (Titus 3:5).

One term that is often used interchangeably with regeneration is the new birth. Men are “born again” spiritually only by the work of God, not by the will of flesh or of men (John 1:13). The believer in Christ is one who has been “born of God” (1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18). It therefore is necessary for God to cause them to be born again. A man can no more cause himself to be born again than he can cause himself to be born the first time! Therefore, it makes sense that Peter says that it is God the Father who has “caused you to be born again” (1 Peter 1:3).

Several other terms are used to describe regeneration. To be regenerated is to become a new creature. What is implied in this idea, when not explicit (as in Ephesians 2:10), is that God the Creator is the one who created the new man (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph. 4:24).

Also involved in regeneration is the idea of new life. The believer in Christ once was “dead” in sin; now he is “alive” with Christ (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13).

Another facet of regeneration is a new heart (at times called a circumcised heart). This idea is called for throughout the Old Testament (Deut 10:16); however, in every case it is only God who can or will do it (Deut 29:4, 30:6; Jer 24:7; Ezek 36:26-27). The need for this, and God’s action in doing it, is reiterated in the New Testament (Acts 7:51; 15:9; 16:14; Romans 2:29; Colossians 2:11).

The agent by whom God does this work is by the Holy Spirit. A man must be born “of the Spirit” in order to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5-8). Paul so closely aligns the “washing of regeneration” with the “renewing by the Holy Spirit” that it is possible he considers them one and the same thing (Titus 3:5). In this sense it is also the direct work of God that causes a person to be born again.

 

It ought to be overwhelmingly clear, then, from these descriptions that regeneration is the work of God and God alone. He is the one who, by his Spirit, causes new birth, makes a new creature, gives new life, and gives a new heart. In each case man is completely powerless to effect the change that God by himself brings about.

And yet there is a common view that God does this only in response to a person’s act of believing. That is: regeneration is God’s response to faith. If you only believe, you will be born again!

Allowing regeneration to follow faith allows us to get in on the action of regeneration. It means that if we can just somehow bring a person to believe, then God will be obligated to regenerate them! And in this way the smallest, most dubious profession of faith suddenly becomes the indicator that a person is a “born again” Christian – something many pollsters are all-to-ready to believe.

But in response we must ask where it is that faith actually comes from. True faith is to believe the gospel in one’s heart (Romans 10:9); in fact, it is only “with the heart a person believes” (Romans 10:10). A person who has not received, or is not at that moment receiving, a new heart will never truly believe in the gospel. The very nature of regeneration indicates that there is something that must be done to a person to make him able to do anything that pleases God (Romans 8:7-8) – especially the most critical act God commands, namely, faith in his Son. If a man has a dead heart, or has not yet been “created” spiritually, or has not yet been “born” spiritually, he is not even alive, or even existent, to act in any spiritual capacity.

Therefore, the idea of any kind of decisional regeneration – where a man believes the gospel and then becomes regenerated, even a split-second later – has no warrant from Scripture. Man does not decide for Christ with the result that God is obligated (even if by his own promise) to then respond with regeneration. It is the other way around. God works so as to regenerate a person so that he can and does actively put his faith in Christ.

Thus we may safely say that regeneration makes faith possible and in this sense precedes it, logically and as its foundation, if not chronologically. Scripture will not allow faith to precede regeneration. It is God’s work, not man’s, that make him belong to Christ Jesus – so that we can’t take credit for our salvation or that of anyone else (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

As for how quickly that occurs after regeneration, it is certain that regeneration and faith both come by the same means. Faith comes only by the word of God. If a person does not hear the word of God, he will not be able to believe (Romans 10:17). Similarly, the means God uses to cause people to be born again is the word of God (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18). That they both come from the same means indicates that there is at least a very close relationship between the two works. Further, that believers are born again by the word of God seems far more likely to describe what happens as that word is being heard and believed than at some later time when the word of God has previously been heard and is not at that moment being considered. More than this, Scripture mentions the results of the two acts (God’s act in regeneration and man’s act in believing) in such an overlapping way that it is difficult to conceive of the presence of one without the other.

The only possible way for a gap to exist between the two events is if the person is regenerated upon hearing the word of God but for some reason does not believe the very first bit of the word of God that he hears. In light of Scripture’s emphasis on the close tie between regeneration and salvation, this is highly unlikely (Titus 3:4). It would appear, then, that regeneration, faith, justification, “salvation” and the pouring out of the Spirit of God on an individual believer all take place at essentially the same time, even if some may logically precede and cause the others (Titus 3:5-7).

So how do men come to be regenerated and to believe the gospel? God calls upon unregenerate men to believe the gospel, and by his Spirit works in men’s hearts by the word of God to believe the message as they are made into a new person.