Biblical Teaching from a Reformed Perspective

I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy
name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou
hast magnified thy word above all thy name. Ps. 138:2

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regeneration by J.I Packer

Regeneration is the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His Will (Matt. 19:28; John 3:3,5,7; Titus 3:5). It extends to the whole nature of man, altering his governing disposition, illuminating his mind, freeing his will, and renewing his nature.

Regeneration, or new birth, is an inner re-creating of fallen human nature by the gracious sovereign action of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8). The Bible conceives salvation as the redemptive renewal of man on the basis of a restored relationship with God in Christ, and presents it as involving "a radical and complete transformation wrought in the soul (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23) by God the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5; Eph. 4:24), by virtue of which we become 'new men' (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), no longer conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:9), but in knowledge and holiness of the truth created after the image of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Rom. 12:2)" (B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, 351). Regeneration is the "birth" by which this work of new creation is begun, as sanctification is the "growth" whereby it continues (I Pet. 2:2; II Pet. 3:18). Regeneration in Christ changes the disposition from lawless, Godless self-seeking ( Rom. 3:9-18; 8:7) which dominates man in Adam into one of trust and love, of repentance for past rebelliousness and unbelief, and loving compliance with God's law henceforth. It enlightens the blinded mind to discern spiritual realities (I Cor. 2:14-15; II Cor. 4:6; Col. 3:10), and liberates and energizes the enslaved will for free obedience to God (Rom. 6:14, 17-22; Phil. 2:13).

The use of the figure of new birth to describe this change emphasizes two facts about it. The first is its decisiveness. The regenerate man has forever ceased to be the man he was; his old life is over and a new life has begun; he is a new creature in Christ, buried with him out of reach of condemnation and raised with him into a new life of righteousness (see Rom. 6:3-11; II Cor. 5:17; Col. 3:9-11). The second fact emphasized is the monergism of regeneration. Infants do not induce, or cooperate in, their own procreation and birth; no more can those who are "dead in trespasses and sins" prompt the quickening operation of God's Spirit within them (see Eph. 2:1-10). Spiritual vivification is a free, and to man mysterious, exercise of divine power (John 3:8), not explicable in terms of the combination or cultivation of existing human resources (John 3:6), not caused or induced by any human efforts (John 1:12-13) or merits (Titus 3:3-7), and not, therefore, to be equated with, or attributed to, any of the experiences, decisions, and acts to which it gives rise and by which it may be known to have taken place.

Biblical Presentation

The noun "regeneration" (palingenesia) occurs only twice. In Matt. 19:28 it denotes the eschatological "restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21) under the Messiah for which Isreal was waiting. This echo of Jewish usage points to the larger scheme of cosmic renewal within which that of individuals finds its place. In Titus 3:5 the word refers to the renewing of the individual. Elsewhere, the thought of regeneration is differently expressed.

In OT prophecies regeneration is depicted as the work of God renovating, circumcising, and softening Israelite hearts, writing his laws upon them, and thereby causing their owners to know, love, and obey him as never before (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:39-40; Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-27). It is a sovereign work of purification from sin's defilement (Ezek. 36:25; cf. Ps. 51:10), wrought by the personal energy of God's creative outbreathing the personal energy of God's creative outbreathing ("spirit": Ezek. 36:27; 39:29). Jeremiah declares that such renovation on a national scale will introduce and signal God's new messianic administration of his covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31; 32:40).

In the NT the thought of regeneration is more fully individualized, and in John's Gospel and First Epistle the figure of new birth, "from above" (anothen: John 3:3, 7, Moffatt), "of water and the Spirit" (i.e., through a purificatory operation of God's Spirit: see Ezek. 36:25-27; John 3:5; cf. 3:8), or simply "of God" (John 1:13, nine times in I John), is integral to the presentation of personal salvation. The verb gennao (which means both "beget" and "bear") is used in these passages in the aorist or perfect tense to denote the once-for-all divine work whereby the sinner, who before was only "flesh," and as such, whether he knew it or not, utterly incompetent in spiritual matters (John 3:3-7), is made "spirit" (John 3:6), i.e., is enabled and caused to receive and respond to the saving revelation of God in Christ. In the Gospel, Christ assures Nicodemus that there are no spiritual activities, no seeing or entering God's kingdom, because no faith in himself, without regeneration (John 3:1ff.); and John declares in the prologue that only the regenerate receive Christ and enter into the privileges of God's children (John 1:12-13). Conversely, in the Epistle John insists that there is no regeneration that does not issue in spiritual activities. The regenerate do righteousness (I John 2:29) and do not live a life of sin (3:9; 5:18: the present tense indicates habitual law-keeping, not absolute sinlessness, cf. 1:8-10); they love Christians (4:7), believe rightly in Christ, and experience faith's victory over the world (5:4). Any who do otherwise, whatever they claim, are still unregenerate children of the devil (3:6-10).

Paul specifies the Christological dimensions of regeneration by presenting it as (1) a lifegiving coresurrection with Christ (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13; cf. I Pet. 1:3); (2) a work of new creation in Christ (II Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; Gal. 6:15). Peter and James make the further point that God "begets anew" (anagennao: I Pet. 1:23) and "brings to birth" (apokyeo: James 1:18) by means of the gospel. It is under the impact of the word that God renews the heart, so evoking faith (Acts 16:14-15).

Historical Discussion

The fathers did not formulate the concept of regeneration precisely. They equated it, broadly speakin, with baptismal grace, which to them meant primarily (to Pelagius, exclusively) remission of sins. Augustine realized, and vindicated against Pelagianism, the necessity for prevenient grace to make man trust and love God, but he did not precisely equate this grace with regeneration. The Reformers reaffirmed the substance of Augustine's doctrine of prevenient grace, and Reformed theology still maintains it. Calvin used the term "regeneration" to cover man's whole subjective renewal, including conversion and sanctification. Many seventeenth century Reformed theologians equated regeneration with effectual calling and conversion with regeneration (hence the systematic mistranslation of epistrepho, "turn," as a passive, "be converted," in the AV); later Reformed theology has defined regeneration more narrowly, as the implanting of the "seed" from which faith and repentance spring (I John 3:9) in the course of effectual calling. Arminianism constructed the doctrine of regeneration synergistically, making man's renewal dependent on his prior cooperation with grace; liberalism constructed it naturalistically, identifying regeneration with a moral change or a religious experience.
The fathers lost the biblical understanding of the sacraments as signs to sir up faith and seals to confirm believers in possession of the blessings signified, and so came to regard baptism as conveying the regeneration which it signified (Titus 3:5) ex opere operato to those who did not obstruct its working. Since infants could not do this, all baptized infants were accordingly held to be regenerated. This view has persisted in all the non-Reformed churches of Christendom, and among sacramentalists within Protestantism.

J I Packer
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Orr, "Regeneration," HDB; J. Denney, HDCG; B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies; systematic theologies of C. Hodge, III, 1-40, and L. Berkhof, IV, 465-79; A. Ringwald et al., NIDNTT, I, 176ff.; F. Buchsel et al., TDNT, I, 665ff.; B. Citron, The New Birth.

Advanced Information

Scripture terms by which this work of God is designated:

  • Creating - Eph 4:24
  • Begetting - 1Jo 4:7
  • Quickening - Joh 5:21 Eph 2:5
  • Calling out of darkness into marvellous light - 1Pe 2:9
  • The subjects of it are said--
  • To be alive from the dead - Ro 6:13
  • To be new creatures - 2Co 5:17
  • To be born again, or anew - Joh 3:3,7
  • To be God's workmanship - Eph 2:10

Proof that there is such a thing as is commonly called regeneration.

  • The Scriptures declare that such a change is necessary - 2Co 5:17 Ga 6:15
  • The change is described - Eph 2:5 4:23 Jas 1:18 1Pe 1:23
  • It is necessary for the most moral as well as the most profligate - 1Co 15:10 Ga 1:13-16
  • That this change is not a mere reformation is proved by its being referred to the Holy Spirit. - Tit 3:5
  • In the comparison of man's state in grace with his state by nature. - Ro 6:13 8:6-10 Eph 5:8
  • In the experience of all Christians and the testimony of their lives.

Proofs that believers are subjects of supernatural, or spiritual illumination.

  • This is necessary. - Joh 16:3 1Co 2:14 2Co 3:14 4:3
  • The Scriptures expressly affirm it. - Ps 19:7,8 43:3,4 Joh 17:3 1Co 2:12,13 2Co 4:6 Eph 1:18 Php 1:19 Col 3:10 1Jo 4:7 5:20
  • The first effect of regeneration is to open the eyes of our understanding to the excellency of divine truth. The second effect the going forth of the renewed affections toward that excellency perceived.

Proof of the absolute necessity of regeneration

  • The Scriptures assert it. - Joh 3:3 Ro 8:6,7 Eph 2:10 4:21-24
  • It is proved from the nature of man as a sinner - Ro 7:18 8:7-9 1Co 2:14 Eph 2:1
  • Also from the nature of heaven - Isa 35:8 52:1 Mt 5:8 13:41 Heb 12:14 Re 21:27
The restoration of holiness is the grand end of the whole plan of salvation. - Ro 8:28,29 Eph 1:4 5:5,26,27
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Our business is to present the Christian faith clothed in modern terms, not to propagate modern thought clothed in Christian terms. Confusion here is fatal.
                                       --JI Packer

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