When I became a Christian, I lacked the vocabulary to describe what happened to me—all I knew was that I had been saved! I heard the gospel, repented of my sins, and put my faith in Christ alone for my salvation. But, what was different this time from the other hundred or so times that I heard the gospel growing up? Was I more intelligent this time? Was I wiser because I was older?
Prior to the moment of my salvation, I was unable to respond to the gospel in faith because I had not been regenerated, or made spiritually alive. I did not have the ability to respond to the gospel; I was spiritually dead. What happened to me – and to all those who respond in faith – is called regeneration. Regeneration is an invisible work of God alone to awaken us spiritually, enabling us to respond in faith and resulting in a changed life.
Where Do We Find It in the Bible?
We must first start with the reality of our natural condition, which is spiritual deadness. Ephesians 2:1-4 clearly states our condition prior to salvation: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins”. We weren’t just ignorant or uninterested in the things of God, we were completely DEAD! In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel prophesied about regeneration, saying, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances” (36:26-27). God doesn’t rip out the blood-pumping organ in our chest, but gives us new desires. He changes our will. He gives us a new nature. This is what it means to be spiritually alive.
Since we are, by nature, spiritually dead, we must be spiritually re-born. Regeneration is also referred to as “being born again”. This language comes from the Gospel of John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And we contribute just as much to our spiritual birth as our physical birth: nothing. Jonathan Edwards said it well when he stated, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
Who Does It?
When we consider our salvation, we recognize that we all made the conscious decision to respond in repentance and faith. It wasn’t our intellect or wisdom that caused us to believe, though (1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 4:3); it was a work of God alone (2 Cor. 4:6). In theological terms, regeneration is monergistic, or “one working”. This is the opposite of synergistic, which means “working together”. We did not co-work with God to produce a response to the gospel, but God did all of the work Himself, producing spiritual life in us to accomplish our salvation.
When and How Does it Happen?
We can’t see regeneration happen, but John 3:8 says, “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.” Faith is often mistaken as the first step in the process of salvation, because it is the first visible fruit of a changed heart. But as we have discussed already, regeneration is the event that happens within us where God gives us a new heart to enable us to respond in faith. It is necessary for one to be made spiritually alive before they can respond in faith because all a dead person can do is stay dead! Regeneration precedes faith, but from our perspective, it simultaneously happens with a person’s response in faith. Faith will accompany regeneration 100% of the time. 1 Peter 1:3-5 tells us that God caused us to be born again, and He will guard us through faith until the end.
1 Peter 1:23 goes on to tell us how God does this: “you have been born again, through the living and enduring Word of God.” We cannot say definitively when regeneration happens, but from Scripture we know that God does it is through His Word–primarily through the message of the gospel. So while it is God alone who causes us to be born again, He uses the means of His Word to bring us to the truth, whether through the preached Word, a one-on-one conversation, a personal quiet time, or reading the bible. This is why we must never neglect the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
What is the Result?
2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Being born of God is the start of being made a new, spiritual creation, yet it looks different for different people. Some people are drastically changed seemingly overnight; for others, it takes months—even years—to begin to look like a new creation. It isn’t as important to know the date and time that you came to faith, but it is important to examine yourself to make sure repentance and belief in the gospel are continual fruits in your life. Repentance and belief are a few of the fruits that will be evident in someone who has been born again. In addition, those who have been born of God go on to display righteousness, love, holiness, and distinctiveness from the world (1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:3-4).
Christians are recognized by their fruits (Matt. 7:20). We don’t see regeneration take place, but faith and the fruits of a changed life are evidence that one has been born of God. God alone causes us to be born again, so that no one can boast. I can boast in nothing of my spiritual birth, just as I cannot boast that I contributed anything to my own physical birth.
Acting as book ends to Ezekiel’s prophecy of regeneration, the Lord God states His purpose for regeneration in 36:22 and again 36:32, “It is not for your sake, but for the sake of my holy name.” For the sake of God’s holy name, He makes dead sinners alive in Christ, and He causes us to walk in a manner worthy of His name. On our own, we would fail. For His Name’s sake, God sent Christ to pay the penalty for our sins, live the perfect life that we could not, and mediate on our behalf until His return when we will be glorified with Him. We rejoice in our regeneration, because God has done what we could not in bringing dead people to life. Praise God for His unfailing kindness to us!