“In the early Church regeneration often expressed, not any inward moral change, but an external change of state or relation. Among the Jews when a heathen became a proselyte to their religion, he was said to be born again. The change of his status from without to within the theocracy, was called regeneration” (Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol III).
With that in mind, Nicodemus, the Pharisee who approached Jesus by night, could not comprehend what Jesus meant when He said to him, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3: 3). Nicodemus had assumed that he was already part of the kingdom of God because he was of Jewish descent – a son of Abraham. If being born again did not apply to him as a Jew, how then should he understand the words of Christ? So, deriving the most literal sense of the term “born again”, Nicodemus replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (v 4). Jesus then responded with His often-quoted words, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v 5).
To be born again is a one-time act of God in the believer known as regeneration, or conversion. These are interchangeable terms that describe the new spiritual birth that every professing believer must experience. In his epistle to Titus, the Apostle Paul highlighted this fundamental need of regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit; we cannot “earn” our salvation by our own “works of righteousness”: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit 3: 5).
Regeneration is closely related to the irresistible “effectual calling” in that it results from the internal call of the Holy Spirit. One who has experienced this regenerative work of God is called a “new creature” (II Cor 5: 17). His mind now being enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the believer sees his sinfulness and responds to embrace the Gospel of Christ. He is given the ability to exercise true saving faith – the only kind which God accepts on account of the redemptive work of Christ upon the cross. Taking God at His Word, the new convert believes His promise of salvation from the penalty and power of sin through the only Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The miracle of regeneration is seen in the impartation of new life as reflected in God’s precious promise to the nation of Israel in Ezekiel 36: 26-27 – “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.” In the Spirit’s regenerating work, “the stony heart” will be replaced by “an heart of flesh”.
Note, however, that faith is a gift from God. We are born again to faith in Christ. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit is the root of our new birth.
However, although faith is a supernatural phenomenon endowed by the Holy Spirit to God’s special elect, it is oftentimes hard to distinguish true saving faith from false faith. For example, there is a kind of faith that is intellectual by nature but is spiritually dead. Reformed theologians call it “historical faith”.
Before his conversion, Nicodemus – together with the Pharisees whom Jesus denounced – were good representatives of those possessing a dead historical faith. Their “faith” might have been derived from their early upbringing, education, family tradition, past lip confession, or devoted commitment to religious acts and associations. They might have heard the truth, but because of unbelief, there was no fruit.
Another familiar type of false faith is temporal faith. This is represented by the stony ground in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt 13: 20-21). In the face of trials and persecutions, these professing believers forsake or deny Christ. These false believers fail to abide in Christ because they are quick to receive God’s promises “with joy”, but they are not willing to suffer for their faith (cf: Phil 1: 29). In the light of this danger, the Apostle Peter, after listing the fruits that “pertain unto life and godliness” (II Pet 1: 3-7), urges the believers to “give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (v 10).
On the other hand, true saving faith will never fall away entirely. This faith comprises firstly of an assent to the narratives and evidences of this historical Christian faith as revealed in the Scriptures. Second, conviction and a passionate response must be derived from reading Scripture. Finally, true saving faith must include a deliberate commitment to Christ as our Master, “that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (II Cor 5: 15); and a personal trust in Him as our Saviour, Who has been made “sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (v 21).
Dearly beloved, have you been redeemed by the precious blood of our Saviour? Do you possess true saving faith? It is not enough merely to believe about Jesus but on Jesus. We must belong to Him and be in Him, lest we be rejected by Him in the final judgment. Let us heed the warning: “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity”(Matt 7: 22-23). May we be found among those who are truly born again of the Holy Spirit and possess true saving faith.
– Bro Kelvin Li