WORDS OF SALVATION
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002
STUDY 2: REGENERATION
To understand the Christian significance of the word 'regeneration' it is necessary to understand the magnitude of the Genesis 3 event. There in that original rebellious rejection of God and his word Adam and Eve severed themselves from their Creator. Unless we understand what happened here, and how, according to the Bible, this original sin has impacted all of Adam's descendants, our understanding and appreciation of the salvation God gives us in his Son, Jesus Christ, will be minimal.
The perspective of Genesis 3 - why regeneration is necessary
There are those who reject Genesis 3 as myth. There are those who do not realize what it is teaching us. There are those who hear what it is teaching and choose not to believe it because it is too offensive, too insulting to human ability. But for those who both hear and accept what it is saying, Genesis 3:1-24, and Biblical comments on Genesis 3, teach us:
- Adam's sin brought death to all mankind (Genesis 2:17; Romans 5:12-21; 6:23; Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13).
- Adam's sin brought God's curse on all mankind (Genesis 3:14-19; Galatians 3:10).
- Adam's sin barred all mankind from eternal life (Genesis 3:22-24).
Leaving aside the physical death which entered our existence at this time, and which is also overcome by Jesus Christ (John 11:1-44; 1Corinthians 15:12-58), let us focus on the spiritual meaning of these three effects of Adam's sin. Each of them speaks of separation from God, who is the source of spiritual life. Death is characterized by cessation and separation.
Here in this Genesis 3 death, our spirit died .
Here in this death we were, by our rebellion against God, severed from the source of our spiritual life .
To be under God's curse is, likewise, to be cut off from God, and from all the spiritual blessings that are enjoyed in positive relationship with him.
To be barred from eternal life means that neither now nor in the future is it possible or permissible for us, in ourselves and by ourselves, to regain access to that positive relationship or union with God which is called 'life' or 'eternal life'.
In our natural inclination to cling to our own ability and integrity there is a constant tendency to reduce the meaning of this spiritual deadness, this separation from God, this impossibility and prohibition. We like to believe that we still have the capacity, even if only a small one, to make a move towards God, a move to which he will respond with the gift of a restored relationship with himself.
But the message of Genesis 3, affirmed in the Scriptures listed above, is that such a move on our part, such a reaching out towards God, is not possible. We are spiritually dead, and that which is dead can do nothing. Thus the Bible teaches that in ourselves we are incapable of making any move that will undo the effects of Genesis 3.
The life-giving action of God
Into this state of deadness, prohibition and disempowerment (Romans 5:6) in which we can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5); in which it is not possible for us to do anything to establish a relationship with God (John 15:5); in which we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6): into this state God comes to us in the person of his Son; into this helpless state God comes, God speaks, God acts.
This act of God, in which he gives new spiritual life to that which is spiritually dead, is called regeneration. It is also called being born again, anew, or from above (John 3:3,7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:5,6,8), being born of God (John 1:14, 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 4, 18), and being born of him (the Son) (1 John 2:29).
In popular Christian language, regeneration is being born again. The distinction that is made in some circles between a 'Christian' and 'born-again-Christian' cannot be supported by the Biblical witness. Any Christian is essentially someone who has been born again. (There are of course people who wrongly assume they are Christians because of family, national or denominational associations, but we are not talking of those.) As far as the Bible is concerned, all genuine believers in Jesus Christ, all who have personally believed in his name, are born again. All have been the recipients of the regenerating work of the triune God.
At this point it is essential to stress that regeneration is a work of God. We do not regenerate ourselves. Just as an infant does not bring itself to birth, so also we do not bring ourselves to spiritual re-birth. We who are spiritually dead, are the passive recipients of the life-giving action of God. This truth is prophetically depicted in Ezekiel 37 where the prophet is confronted by a valley filled with very dry human bones. The Lord asked Ezekiel: 'Son of man, can these bones live.' Ezekiel replied: 'O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.' (37:3). Then that which is impossible happened. By the power of the Lord the bones were clothed with flesh and lived. Life replaced death.
This truth is also depicted by Jesus Christ when he raised Lazarus from death to life (John 11:1-44). Throughout John's gospel Jesus repeatedly claimed a direct association between himself and life (3:15,16,36; 4:14; 5:15,25,26,40; 6:27,33,35; 7:38; 8:12,51; 10:10,28; 11:25,26; 14:6). Here in chapter eleven Jesus authenticates his claims to be the only source and giver of life. Here he anticipates both his own resurrection and the spiritual regeneration and physical resurrection of all believers. Here Jesus confronts death. Physical death. His ability to undo the death and decay that was already disintegrating the body of Lazarus will demonstrate that he also has the authority and ability to undo that other side of the curse of Genesis 3, that spiritual death in which we are inescapably cut off from life with God. Here in this death of Lazarus we are each confronted with our own dying, with our own subjection to and imprisonment in that curse.
Jesus stands before the grave. His voice commands the one who is dead. By his word he calls forth life out of death. Just as in the original creative act at the beginning of time the word of God summoned into existence all that is, so here the living Word, the Son of God, calls into life him who was dead. He reconstitutes the putrefying flesh; he renews the dehydrating blood; he restores the body fluids; he reverses the cold, hard stiffness of death; he resuscitates the heart and the lungs. All of this and more, simply by the power of his word.
Just as Lazarus could not revive himself, even so it is impossible for us to regenerate our spirits. The Bible teaches that we are dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1,5); that we are powerless (Romans 5:6); that we cannot come to the Father except through Jesus Christ (Jn 14:6) and that we cannot come to the Son except the Father draws us (John 6:44). To know God is eternal life (John 17:3), but Jesus, the Son of God, said that no one knows the Father except those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:27). Regeneration, being born again, occurs when God, of his own will, in an action of sheer grace, comes to us in our deadness, our inability, our disempowerment, our exile, and does for us that which we are utterly incapable of doing. He, the triune God - Father, Son and Spirit, comes to us and gives us life.
This is regeneration. This act of God in which he makes our spirits live again. This act of God in which we are reunited with him, the source of life.