Regeneration: the Work of the Gospel We Should Talk About More

What does the gospel do in us? That might seem like a strange question since the gospel does a lot. Depending on your inclinations, you might think about:

  • Atonement: the consequences of our sins are satisfied and our guilt is covered through Jesus’ death.
  • Justification: we are declared righteous because Jesus’ righteousness is given to us.
  • Adoption: we are welcomed into God’s family as beloved sons and daughters.

These truths matter. They are beautiful, shaping our faith in profound ways. But there’s something else that the gospel does, something distinct from these, that is also inseparable from them. What is it? The new birth—regeneration.

We don’t talk nearly enough about regeneration’s place in the gospel’s work in us. I don’t think this is out of any ill-intent. We don’t mean to neglect it; we more or less assume it. But we shouldn’t. Instead, we should remind ourselves of the good news that it is—and why it really matters to our lives.

What is Regeneration?

Regeneration is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, where he gives new life to those who were dead in their sins. Jesus explained this work’s necessity in John 3 when he said to Nicodemus:

I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God…unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:3, 5-6 NET).

Jesus’ mention of “water and spirit” in verse 5 is important. In saying this, he was reminding Nicodemus that this new birth was something God had promised centuries earlier in two important prophecies: Isaiah 44:3-5 and Ezekiel 37:9-10.

Isaiah’s prophecy was a promise of renewal for God’s people. Just as water heals parched and cracked soil, the people would be healed, restored, because they would be the Lord’s. Ezekiel’s was even more overt, as the Lord called on the prophet to call for the “breath”—a reference to the Holy Spirit—to restore life to people who had been long dead, so long that only their bones remained.

All of this was wrapped up in a few simple words from Jesus to Nicodemus. And what he said is still true. If anyone wants to see the kingdom of God, he or she must be born again—given new life by the Holy Spirit.

Why Would We Need to be Born Again at All?

But why does anyone need to be “born again,” or regenerated, at all? This is one of the many aspects of Christianity that comes into conflict with the values of our society.

We are all happy to consider ourselves “works in progress.” We have our flaws, we might say. Sometimes, those flaws are profoundly deep. But we’re all on a journey, becoming better people, right?

Sure. Except that’s not what the Bible describes. There, the picture of humanity is less optimistic. Although we were called good in the beginning, as beings meant to live under God’s good authority, we rejected God’s goodness and authority. And the consequences of that rejection have been disastrous.

Morally and spiritually, we are called “corrupt,” “haters of God,” “lovers of darkness,” “inventors of evil,” “children of wrath,” (John 3:19; Rom. 1:29-31), and, perhaps most significantly, “dead in our trespasses and sins” in Ephesians 2:1. And the thing with this word “dead” is that it really means “dead. Like, a corpse kind of dead.

And what can the dead do? They can’t will themselves alive. They can’t do anything. For people to genuinely love and obey God, they need to be born again.

And so that’s what God does. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God makes dead people live. He creates in us a desire to love and obey God. He makes us new people, with a new heart, a “cleansed” or “purified” one (Acts 15:9).

The Beginning of Our Life with Christ

Regeneration is, in a very real sense, the beginning of our life with Christ. It is how we move from death to life. But it doesn’t negate the importance of faith and repentance. Human beings really are called to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

And the faith we possess is genuinely ours. It is a heartfelt recognition and confession of the truth of the gospel. It creates a desire to humble ourselves before Christ as our Lord and Savior (John 1:10-13; 1 John 4:13-16).

Repentance, likewise, is a way in which we express that faith. It is, in part, a genuine sorrow over our sins. But that sorrow doesn’t cause us to wallow in self-pity or to flee from God. Instead, it draws us toward him, turning away from sin in favor of Christ our Lord.

I don’t generally like using analogies. They often lead to accidental heresy. However, there is one that might be helpful in this case—one that is rooted in Jesus’ own words:

Think about the relationship between regeneration, faith, and repentance, like the very first moments of life. To be born again is, in a sense, like entering into the world as a brand-new baby. Just as we didn’t bring ourselves into the world in our physical birth, we don’t cause ourselves to experience the new birth. But when we are born again, we cannot help but respond with faith and repentance.

The foundation for the rest of our lives

Regeneration is the beginning of our life with Christ. It is also the event that begins the process called sanctification, gradually becoming more and more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The process that leads us to our glorification, the moment when we will be finally and fully perfected and free from sin, made as completely holy as our justification declares us to be. The moment we won’t see until the day we stand before Jesus and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).

This is why we should talk about it more. It helps us to see the beauty of what God has done for us in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise again (1 Corinthians 15:3–5). It leads us to depend on God to finish the work he did in saving us. And it gives us confidence as we talk about Jesus with others.

Regeneration reminds us that we cannot will anyone into the kingdom of God. Only God gives new life, and we don’t know when or where he’s going to do it. So when we talk about Jesus in our day-to-day lives, when we’re praying for those we know and love who are resistant to Jesus, we can trust God to do what only God can do—to make the spiritually dead come to life.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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