Regeneration is a picture word. It means 2nd birth. It denotes a new beginning of life. That’s why the Bible uses as illustrations ideas such as resurrection from the dead, creation, and birth. Before looking at these ideas, I’d like to give a brief, succinct definition of the word. “Regeneration is that supernatural act of God, whereby a new and divine life is infused into the person spiritually dead, and that from the incorruptible seed of God, made fruitful by the infinite power of the Spirit.”
We must begin by realizing that we are all dead in Adam. This is what we are taught in 1 Corinthians 15:22* and Ephesians 2:1. This means, first of all, we are separated from God – the life of our life, or the language of Paul, “alienated from the life of God.” (Ephesians 4:18) secondly, we are spiritually insensible to all spiritual things and destitute of all true feeling. We are unaware that we are heavily laden because we are in our element in sin (Ephesians 4:19). Therefore we have no relish or desire for truly spiritual and heavenly things. Thirdly, we are incapable of any act of true life. Acknowledging as Scripture does, that we are dead in sins and trespasses prior to regeneration, it should go without saying that we are incapable of any act of true life – in the words of Paul “not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves” (2 Corinthians 3:5).
*in Adam all—in union of nature with Adam, as representative head of mankind in their fall.
in Christ … all—in union of nature with Christ, the representative head of mankind in their recovery. The life brought in by Christ is co-extensive with the death brought in by Adam.
As J.I. Packer notes in his book 18 Words, it is our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus that provides us with a theology of regeneration in crystallized form. John 3:3-8 is crucial to a biblical understanding of the doctrine of regeneration. From Christ’s teaching we can extract for major components of the doctrine of Regeneration. They are as follows: (1) The Source of the New Birth; (2) The Nature of the New Birth; (3) The Necessity of the New Birth; (4) The Method of the New Birth.
We will look at these 4 points in turn. First of all we have the source of the new birth. Jesus’ own words are, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” If you have ever done any word studies on this verse, you will know that the word rendered “again” is purposely ambiguous in the Greek, and can be translated either “again” or “from above.” Unlike your first birth, rebirth is a vertical matter. It comes from above. What does that even mean? The obvious answer to that question is that regeneration is supernatural, as opposed to natural. It is something miraculous; it is something heavenly. It is not commonplace or biological. You’ll remember that later in that conversation Jesus says, “if I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Regeneration is a heavenly thing. In order to express something supernatural in language that man can understand, i.e. a metaphor, Christ chose the image of birth to communicate something divine to man’s finite mind . The moral of the lesson is this: God is the source of the new birth. We are told in James 1:17 that every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights. Every blessing, whether it be spiritual or physical in nature, comes from above, comes from the hand of God. Regeneration is no exception. Salvation in all of its constituent parts is God’s work. As we are told in Jonah 2:9, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
Because regeneration is a miracle, a new birth, a new creation, a resurrection from the dead, only God can regenerate. “God has saved us and called us with a holy calling not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9). This verse is Paul’s version of Psalm 100:3, “is he that has made us and not we ourselves.” In the prologue of his gospel, John argues the same way. He says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God, who were born, not of the will of flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” The new birth is not the product of human lineage, nor is it the result of human relationship, nor is it the result of a human decision. Man is born, “of God.” The preposition “of” denotes the source or origin. People are not again, people are not regenerated as a result of something they do, but solely on the basis of God’s will and power.
(2) The Nature of the New Birth
What then, is the nature of the new birth? Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a 2nd time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus was puzzled by the nature of the new birth. It is obvious by his question that he is thinking of regeneration in terms of the birth process. Jesus uses a word (gennao) that refers to the concept of generational descent. In other words, Jesus is not focusing on the experience of birth but on the fact that the father’s nature is passed on to his child. What happens in a new birth? What kind of birth is it? It is a birth in which the divine nature is imparted into the soul. Jesus said that your first birth reproduced in you the nature of your parents. That is what is meant by the words “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” The 2nd birth, i.e. Regeneration implants within you the divine nature. That is what is meant by the words “and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In the same way that children possess the nature of their parents, God’s children possess a new nature, is a spiritual and divine nature which they are given when they are born again. It is clear then from this argument that regeneration is something supernatural. It is something which only the Holy Spirit can do in the nature of the human heart.
Our regeneration and communion with Christ consists in conformity with these two public acts of Christ: in a mortification of the body of sin in conformity to His death – a putting to death of the “body of sin;” in conformity to His resurrection, a “newness of life,” by quickening grace.
(3) The Necessity of the New Birth
“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Regeneration is necessary because people are born in Original Sin, by nature totally depraved. No one can be saved without the new birth. The Greek word Δεῖ, translated “must,” signifies logical necessity. By using such a strong term Jesus is indicating that regeneration is essential, imperative, absolutely necessary for salvation. Notice that Jesus does not tell Nicodemus to do anything in order to be born again. “You must be born again” is simply a statement of fact. It is not a command. It is what theologians call and indicative, or declarative sentence. It is not an imperative sentence. We can easily summarize the whole passage like this: Regeneration is not something that any man can do, because flash can only produce flesh. It is a work of God’s Spirit, like the wind blows when and where he pleases. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, “Regeneration is a necessity, but neither you nor anyone other man can cause the happen, even if you could think of the way to return to your mother’s womb. Only God can perform this work.”