Regeneration seems to be one of those topics that theologians argue about while non-experts give little thought to it. Since this is a biblical topic that appears in nearly every book of the New Testament, we should consider this major theme closely and repeatedly. Regeneration is implicated not only in the term “born again,” but also in the many references to Christians as children of God, sons of God, the new self, new creation, having been made alive, and the new Christian familial identity as brothers and sisters to each other. I offer three controversial theses about regeneration to provoke consideration of this important doctrine.
- Regeneration is a gift provided in the New Covenant
- Regeneration was not experienced until Pentecost
- Regeneration is only experienced through embrace of the gospel
(1) Regeneration is a gift provided in the New Covenant (and not otherwise)
Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31 tell God’s promise of an inward work of salvation that is also broader and deeper than previously experienced in Israel. These features coincide as necessary provisions for the guilt, corruption, and personal hostility because of sin. Apart from the cross-resurrection-ascension of Jesus, God could not provide the New Covenant realities until the incarnation had occurred. Notice that when Jesus promises living water as an echo of the New Covenant promise, John explains that “the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39; all quotations are from nasb). At least four features of the New Covenant (NC) are unprecedented and coincide with the personal renewal by which God makes sinners who were “dead in sin” and “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3) alive by the Spirit and children of God.
The complete forgiveness of sins
- Ezekiel 36:25 “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols”
- Jeremiah 31:34 “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more”
- Unlike the earlier provisions of forgiveness through the temple cult, the NC promise of comprehensive forgiveness anticipates the provision in the cross. Justification by faith alone was provided during the Old Covenant (OC; Paul cites Abraham and David as examples of justification by grace through faith in Romans 4), but the clear promise of this provision is veiled until the NC that would replace the OC.
The provision of a new heart as the core personal identity
- Ezekiel 36:26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh”
- Jeremiah 31:33b “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it”
- I take the promise of the three items “new heart” “new spirit” and “heart of flesh” to be synonyms for the new creation reality told in
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come”
- Galatians 6:15 “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation”
- Romans 6:4 “we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life.”
- The child of God is described as “born of God” (John 1:12-13) to live a new mode of existence anticipated by the New Covenant promise of a new heart. This is a changed ontological reality for the Christian, probably in the metaphysical (spiritual) instead of the molecular aspect of human being. The changed spiritual reality seems to require some changed physical reality in the brain and biochemistry (the capacity of the mind, will, and emotion), at least in part. (This is tricky; I mean to say that the brain is involved in mind, will, and emotion, and that the person and these capacities also transcend the brain, as in holistic dualism and substance dualism.)
- Alternatively, perhaps the new core is not a transplant of new creation within the old human, but the new heart is the enlivening of the heart by the presence and action of the Spirit. However, the indwelling of the Spirit (see next point) is not limited to the spiritual dimension of humanity, since the body is the earthly, physical location of the Spirit in the human being (1 Cor. 6:19).
The indwelling of the Holy Spirit
- Ezekiel 36:27 “I will put My Spirit within you”
- This promise coincides with the promised gift of the Spirit repeatedly told by Jesus in John 14-16, and Acts 1:5, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Luke shifts the language of “filled” to describe the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:4). By comparison, the command to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18) is not Spirit baptism (as in Pentecost or conversion) or regeneration, but the ongoing experience of life in the Spirit, as demonstrated in the “filling” experiences subsequent to Pentecost in Acts 4:8, 31; 13:9, 52.
- The Christian’s body has been made a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), which seems incompatible with the OC during which arrangement God dwelt in the stone temple at Jerusalem. Once God had vacated the stone temple (Ezekiel 9-11), the relocation to the body of Christ according to the Incarnation and the NC Jesus established was now God’s permanent residence in creation (which change of address showed in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple shortly after Pentecost).
- The connection between living water and the gift of the Spirit told in Ezekiel 36 had earlier been anticipated in Isaiah 44:3, which Jesus quotes in John 7:38.
The energizing of new capacities and desires to live with God
- Ezekiel 36:27 “I will … cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances”
- Jeremiah 31:34 “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them”
- This new creation reality coincides with the indwelling of the Spirit of God who powers and guides the Christian in voluntary conformity to Jesus. Perhaps even the newness of the creature is best understood as renewal through union with and indwelling by the triune God through the Spirit (cf. John 14:23 “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make our abode with him”).
- The Christian is deeply renewed, bonded to God, indwelt by God at the core, but there remains need for the Spirit to progressively fill up all of the Christian’s life. This is the voluntary embrace of God’s work in sanctification, as in Ephesians 5:18, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.” By the analogy of getting drunk, the filling of the Spirit is a voluntary response of surrender to the Spirit’s influence for renewal of mind, will, and emotion (the spiritual heart). This is parallel to the voluntary renewal told in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
- This fourth aspect is the result of the new heart that is powered by the Spirit of God, but without zapping the person in the changes of conformity to God. The new life worked out in a million choices is voluntary personal renewal. Thus, the appeals from God during the OC met with little response, but the similar call in the NC has a grip in the Christian, for the result of actual progress in conformity to Jesus.
To sum up, I present these four aspects of the NC to show how they correspond to the NT teaching about regeneration. The correspondence suggests that the reality of regeneration was not provided apart from the NC. I will provide further argument for this first claim in Part II.