Just for Catholics

REGENERATION

What is the new birth, or regeneration, as it is also called? We may define regeneration as a creative act of God, imparting new life to spiritually dead sinners. Physical birth results in physical life; regeneration by the Spirit gives us spiritual life, for ‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6).

The Bible uses different terms to describe regeneration: (1) to beget, procreate, give birth (John 1:13; James 1:18; 1 John 2:29); (2) to regenerate, create anew (Titus 3:5; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 2:10; 4:24); (3) to make alive (Eph 2:5; Col 2:13).

Spiritually Dead

The new birth is indispensable for salvation. During a conversation with Nicodemus, a respected Jewish leader, Jesus underlines the absolute necessity of the new birth. Nicodemus was a Jew – a member of God’s covenant people; he was circumcised (the Old Testament rite which distinguished Jews from Gentiles and was a picture of their covenantal consecration to God); studied and taught the Scriptures; prayed regularly and endeavored to keep the commandments.

Yet Jesus insisted that unless Nicodemus was born again (or literally, born from above), he would not see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 7). We should apply Jesus’ words to ourselves. It is not enough to come from a good Christian family, to be baptized, and to be a religious and moral person. All those things will not give us an entrance into heaven. To see and enter God’s kingdom, we too must be born again!

But why is regeneration necessary? The Bible’s diagnosis of our spiritual health is dismal. We are not merely weak or sick; much worse than that, we are spiritually ‘dead in trespasses and sin’ (Eph 2:1). Thus we need to be born ‘from above’ – by the power of God – because we come into this world as spiritual stillbirths. We who are ‘dead’ need to be ‘made alive’ (Eph 2:3).

Calling

The gospel is proclaimed to everyone; many are invited, many are called. Yet God’s marvellous invitation is often met with indifference, antipathy and even open hostility. That is not unexpected, given man’s sinful nature and the state of spiritual death. On the contrary what is surprising is that some do in fact respond and believe.

We come to believe only because God’s call is powerful and effective. As in the beginning, when God spoke and the worlds were formed, even now, God’s word creates new spiritual life. The Bible states that ‘whom [God] predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified’ (Rom 8:30). In this verse, ‘called’ cannot be referring to the general gospel invitation, for not everyone who hears the gospel is predestined. The same people who are here ‘called’ had also been predestined, and are also justified. Their call was effective unto salvation. This act of God is termed ‘the effectual call’ and must be distinguished from the general call or gospel invitation. The apostle Paul uses the word ‘called’ to mean the converted, all Christians. In distinction from the rest of the world, the called ‘belong to Jesus Christ’, they are ‘loved of God’ (Rom 1:6, 7) and ‘in fellowship with his Son’ (1 Cor 1:9 NIV).

Jesus’ miracle of raising Lazarus from death illustrates the power of God’s call. Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. Yet Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ Could Lazarus come out of the grave? Could a cadaver hear anything or walk? How then did he hear Jesus’ voice and walk out of the grave? Was it not by the power of Jesus’ word? Jesus had breathed in him new life so that he could respond to his call. The same is true of every person who ever responds to the gospel.

Born of God

Can we do something to be born again? No, the new birth is not something we can do, or even help to achieve. Regeneration is the work of someone else, the Holy Spirit. Again and again the apostle John emphasizes that we are ‘born of God’ (1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4,18). God is the author of the new birth.

The new birth is an act of God alone, without human help, consent or cooperation. ‘As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:12, 13). Who are they who receive and believe in the Lord Jesus? Certainly not those who are spiritually dead; they have no attraction to Christ but rather walk according to the course of this world, under the tyranny of Satan, and enslaved to their sinful passions (Eph 2:1-3). Who then believes in Christ? The Bible answers, those who were born of God. Regeneration comes first and enables us to believe.

Can we say that we were born of God because we made a decision to receive Christ, or because we said a special prayer? No, many who made ‘a decision for Christ’ and said the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ show no evidence of spiritual life. The new birth is not by the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of the will of God. It is not something that you decide to do, but an act that God performs in us if and when he pleases. Nor can we presume to be born again simply because we have been baptized. Suffice it to say that many who have been baptized show no signs of spiritual life.

The Fruit Of Regeneration

How then can we tell if we have been born again, if we’re spiritually alive? Though the new birth is God’s work exclusively, the results of the new birth are clearly evident in us. The first cry and breathing of a newborn baby reassures the mother that her child is alive and healthy. What then are the signs of spiritual life? The Bible underlines three qualities that characterise the children of God: faith, holiness and love.

  1. Faith: ‘Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God’ (1 John 5:1); and again, ‘He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him’ (John 3:36).

  2. Holiness: ‘Whoever has been born of God does not sin ... you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him’ (1 John 3:9; 2:29).

  3. Love: ‘Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God ... we know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren’ (1 John 4:7; 3:14).

The Bible does not teach that we are born again by faith, or on account of our holiness or love. On the contrary, these virtues follow after regeneration. Faith in Christ, personal holiness and a loving attitude are the concrete evidence that a person is born from above into God’s family.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi. 2008. Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this article in any format provided that the wording is not altered and that no fee is charged. Please include the following statement on distributed copies: Copyright Dr Joseph Mizzi. Website: www.justforcatholics.org. Used by permission.